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PIANIST DISPLAYS A VIVID 'RHYTHM'

This weekend's concert at Kleinhans Music Hall is brimming with curiosities.

First, there's that blue Steinway, made in tribute to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Actually it's a sparkling midnight blue -- not as jarring as you'd think, although Liberace would have liked it.

Second, there's Marcus Roberts, a jazz pianist who since his days with Wynton Marsalis has given us the unexpected.

The program is offbeat and flashy and full of fun.

Dashing guest conductor Thomas Wilkins began things with "Strike Up the Band" and continued with a bombastic Irving Berlin medley.

Roberts made his entrance with variations on "I Got Rhythm." His performance was vivid and inspiring.

If Roberts isn't your conventional classical pianist, he's not your conventional jazz pianist, either. He's quirky, with wider spaces than most musicians like. The "Rhythm" piece saw him interspersing clear lines of treble octaves with low solo bass notes. A flick of his wrist, and we'd hear a bundle of blues tones.

He and his trio played what amounted to a concerto with the orchestra. From time to time the BPO would drop out, and the trio would take over. Roberts gave his sidemen equal time. The bassist turned out a riveting slap-that-bass solo a la Stanley Clarke.

It wasn't clear how much was the agreed-upon score and how much was spontaneous. (It would be interesting to hear it a second time.) But it didn't get boring.

Roberts is blind, and behind his dark glasses, his face betrays no hint of what he's going to do next. He's amazingly sure-fingered, as he proved in his unique version of "Rhapsody in Blue."

That "Rhapsody!" He threw himself into it, adding glissandi and blues rosettas and a bunch of stunning cadenzas that weren't there before. His technique is tremendous.

The fun did come at some cost to the piece's structure; at times, I felt the "Rhapsody" was groaning a bit under the weight of the additions. But Roberts carries off his visions with such style and command that we can't help sharing his joy in the music.

Two minor notes: First, the drummer should stop fidgeting (he's in front, after all). Second, the Steinway's sound could have been mightier -- it was a little hard to hear. Maybe the equalization could be adjusted to brighten the tone. Let's hear if this baby sounds as pretty as it looks!

REVIEW

Pianist Marcus Roberts, with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Pops concert with guest conductor Thomas Wilkins.

Friday and tonight in Kleinhans Music Hall.

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