The Marcus Roberts Trio with Béla Fleck grace the Garde

Pianist Marcus Roberts, left, bassist Rodney Jordan and banjo wizard Béla Fleck
Pianist Marcus Roberts, left, bassist Rodney Jordan and banjo wizard Béla Fleck

Artists such as Marcus Roberts and Béla Fleck routinely cast musical spells the rest of us could never have conceived - and instead gratefully devour.

And that's BEFORE they joined forces.

Fleck, of course, blew onto the world-music scene at a time when most folks' idea of banjo virtuosity was directly linked to that weird little kid in "Deliverance."

A mesmerizing instrumentalist, Fleck, along with his equally visionary band the Flecktones, took banjo music into a new solar system - one in which the planets of gypsy/Mediterranean music and African stylings rotated around a sun of bluegrass.

As for Roberts, the born-blind piano giant grew up in Florida fascinated by the syncopation and soul of gospel and stride, then brought those left-hand skills into the realm of traditional jazz. After being taken under the feathery wing of Wynton Marsalis, Roberts formed his own trio with bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis. Their beautifully successful mission has been to explore the fertile territory of folks like Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Jellyroll Morton and Cole Porter and gently nuance the material in post-millenial fashion.

After the Roberts Trio jammed with Fleck at the 2009 Savannah Music Festival, and the session worked magically, the idea of a collaboration was born.

"Across the Imaginary Divide" (Rounder) is the ultimate, breathtaking and unique realization of that session, and the four musicians, touring in support of the CD, perform tonight in New London's Garde Arts Center.

"We realized instantly, onstage in Savannah, that there was an artistic chemistry," says the polite and soft-spoken Roberts on the phone from Florida last week. "Immediately, there were these call-and-response reflexes we had for each other. It was unbelievable what he was playing; I think in my trio, we were thinking, 'How does he do that?'

"At the same time, I think Béla was intrigued by the natural movement of jazz, and he felt pretty comfortable that he wasn't going to be stepping over everything."

Despite the one-off spontaneity of the Savannah jam, the idea of a collaboration was immediate. After dealing with logistics, the two parties managed to convene for purposes of writing and recording an album together.

The title of "Across the Imaginary Divide" is a poetically adept description of how effortlessly the musicians navigated what many folks might have perceived as substantial stylistic differences. Also implied is the idea that such a project would require new and collaborative material as opposed to interpretations of bluegrass or jazz standards.

The only way to describe the music is that all of the various DNA strands from all four musicians' rich history are on display - but gorgeously arranged in almost overwhelmingly original fashion.

"A lot of work went into it," Roberts says. "There were a lot of musical transitions, and they're difficult; a lot of rhythms and the respective registers on piano and banjo had to be worked out. But it was never work. In fact, it was inspirational."

The Marcus Roberts Trio with Béla Fleck, 7:30 tonight, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $44, $54; (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org.

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