Kelly Roberti and the essence of jazz

If you had happened to walk into Plonk Wine Bar this past Saturday, you would have been hit first with a deep rumble. In the midst of wine glasses clinking gently, people chattering about nothing and waiters flitting from table to table, the room vibrated with a bottomless melody. Standing near the doorway, you wouldn’t be able to see the source, but chances are, you’d know the sound — a bass.

The bass in question was in the hands of Kelly Roberti. If you have been paying any attention to local music in the past 15 years, you probably have heard the name go by. If you’re lucky, you’ve managed to hear that bass live. If you’re smart, you’ve heard it more than once. But to say “local music” is to mislead slightly — Roberti is by no means a simple hometown bassist. He has played with everyone from Sonny Rollins to Ray Brown to Tommy Flanagan. The Los Angeles Times even called him “the heir apparent to Charles Mingus.” Roberti’s career has been long, varied and extremely prolific.

On meeting him, though, one doesn’t immediately see the image of the consummate jazz musician — no three-piece suit, no cigarette dangling from the lips. He has a friendly smile, a firm handshake and a quiet confidence to his demeanor. He speaks softly, and listens intently when you speak. He is a chef and a poet and overall, he seems to live simply, happily and quietly. But when the subject turns to jazz, his eyes light up. He reminisces about the old days, playing gigs 250 nights a year, being constantly on the road, feeling the raw energy of music. He laments the current state of jazz, and you realize he is from a very different era. “We never had sheet music,” he explains. “You learned the song by playing all those shows, and it got inside you.”

If you aren’t an avid jazz fan, the names of Roberti’s musical partners may not impress you. But what impresses anyone is watching him play — it is a visual performance as well as an auditory one. He feels the music with the entirety of his body, his eyes closed and his fingers flying. The phoenix tattooed on his left hand seems to soar over the bass neck. Pianist Keith Jarrett is famous for vocalizing during performances, and Roberti does the same thing — he calls it “letting the music come tumbling forward.” He throws his head back, eyes clenched as if in pain, then leans forward and embraces the bass, his lips humming the same melody that’s singing out of the wood.

Eric Funk, a MSU professor and composer, described Roberti’s music as “immediately honest … I never have to guess what he’s thinking or feeling. He plays directly from his heart, mind and soul. He’s technically limitless and always expressively capable,” he says. Listening to Roberti’s recordings, one certainly does get that feeling. The music is spontaneous, changeable, deep and vital. Funk puts it more eloquently: “He’s like life itself. Sometimes broken, sometimes harsh, sometimes joyous, sometimes hurt. He mirrors his experience and the experiences of others.”

Life itself can be tough; Roberti was diagnosed in July with lung cancer. The concert at Plonk was a community fundraiser for his treatment. Cancer is a destructive disease — chronic and vicious, it tears lives apart like the organs it infects. But Roberti is not afraid of the future. He says he is still “plotting a course” to carry him through, and plans to live as much as possible. Nor has the disease taken a hold of the music. “Playing makes me feel good,” he explained. “You can get lost in the music, find your center and forget all the bull—- that goes with this disease.” Then he laughed and said, “Tell those people not to smoke. I didn’t want to be Yul Brynner,” a reference to the famous actor, who died of lung cancer in 1985.

“Support local music,” he said later, his voice emphatic, addressing the public. “We have such great music here, and people need to understand how hard these people work to get to that level. Go out and hear live music, especially jazz; buy CDs!”

By the time I ducked out of Plonk, there had been no stop in the steady flow of business and food. People still filled the narrow bar and the buzz of humanity had not quieted in the least. But over all the chatter, the bass still thrummed — raw, elemental, occasionally painful and heart-achingly beautiful. The street was dark, but even outside, you could still hear the sound of music, low and strong against the night.