From her mother, Cynthia, Roberta learned by ear the tunes of Porter, Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, and Berlin (as well as accompanying lyrics).
In her early teens, a chance encounter with a classic LP rescued from a flea market changed the course of Roberta’s life.
Shortly after that epiphany, Roberta became fascinated with the 20th century classical recordings that had belonged to her late father. Soon she was dividing her time between the stacks of old sheet music in the attic, learning standards, and the Bartok and Schoenberg records and scores in her father’s library. Sprinkled into the mix were a handful of Ellington scores borrowed from the New York Public Library, and saturation listening to WRVR-FM, the New York jazz radio station at the time.
“Coming from a high school with a strong liberal arts curriculum [New York’s prestigious Hunter College High School], I was not opposed to continuing in the liberal arts tradition in college, rather than narrowing my focus only to music. I believed then, and still believe, that an artist needs to be stimulated by the surrounding culture and not live in a vacuum.”
Roberta graduated with a degree in computer science from Tufts and a degree in jazz piano from New England Conservatory, but after a year as a software engineer, it was clear her heart was in music, and she returned to her native New York to study and play. After applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, she began to study with pianist Richie Beirach.
“I was so young and naive when I moved back to New York. I didn’t really know much about Richie’s music. It was sort of blind luck that I started studying with someone who was able to help me integrate my love of modern classical music into my jazz playing and composing.”
As her artistry developed, Roberta found herself in the unusual situation of playing both “straight ahead” jazz as well as so-called “free” music. After a last minute gig subbing with the Lionel Hampton band brought her to the vibraphonist’s attention, she was invited to play on two tunes for his upcoming CD. “The first CD I ever recorded was with Lionel Hampton. The production was a bit disorganized so I ended up doing a little of everything from helping Lionel rehearse the music, to writing out lead sheets for Ron Carter (who chastised me for writing diminished chords instead of dominant 7th chords), to helping in the editing stage. ”
Around the same time, Marian McPartland would hear her as a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Composers Competition and invite her to appear as a featured guest on NPR’s Piano Jazz, the first of three appearances she would make on the show. “Marian was a good friend to me and to countless young musicians,” Roberta recalls.
A 1999 Japan tour with her own trio magically brought Roberta full circle. “The first night we arrived, I was sitting in my hotel room playing with the cable radio system. There were several jazz specialty stations. As soon as I turned on the radio, the first music I heard was a track from that long ago Walter Bishop Jr. LP, Speak Low. It was eerie and incredibly moving to be brought back to that moment when I first fell in love with the piano trio while on my first international tour with my own trio.”
Over the years, Roberta has appeared professionally as a sidewoman with David Liebman, Rufus Reid, Victor Jones, Lionel Hampton, Mickey Roker, Eliot Zigmund, Benny Golson, Ted Curson, Valery Ponomarev, Juini Booth, Virginia Mayhew, and the BMI/NY Jazz Orchestra. She has also toured and performed with some of the most interesting musicians in European and American improvised music, including drummers Klaus Kugel and Billy Mintz, and saxophonists Petras Vysniauskas, Roby Glod and Louie Belogenis.
A gifted composer as well, Roberta was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk BMI Composers’ Competition. She was also the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2018 Roberta won the Downbeat Critics Poll in the “Rising Star – Organ” category, and placed in the top 20 in the “Rising Star – Piano” category. In the 2018 Downbeat Readers’ Poll, Roberta came in 8th in the Jazz Artist category (just behind luminaries Pat Metheny and Tony Bennett), 7th in the Piano category (following the legendary Keith Jarrett) and 5th in the Organ category.
Roberta is from Queens, NY. Her father gave her her first piano lessons when she was seven. Roberta began serious music studies in her early teens, studying jazz piano with Walter Bishop, Jr and classical piano with Vera Wels. While at New England Conservatory she studied privately with Fred Hersch, Stanley Cowell and Bob Moses. Upon returning to New York, in addition to six years of study with Richie Beirach, she studied briefly with Sofia Rosoff.
In addition to Japan, Roberta’s trios have toured Spain and the U.S. She has performed at the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), at the Earshot Festival (Seattle), at the Rochester (NY) Jazz Festival, and in New York at Small’s, Mezzrow’s, the Blue Note, Birdland, and Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center. On her 2011 CD release, Sides, Colors, in addition to featuring her trio, she orchestrated several pieces for winds and strings, sang, and played organ as well.
An eclectic series of projects has followed, including an electric band, Alternating Current, the free improvisation trio Belogenis, Piket, Mintz, the international Roby Glod Quartet, and the Nabokov Project, which sets poems by Vladimir Nabokov to music for piano, violin, mezzo-soprano, percussion, and speaker, blending neo-classical harmonic concepts with lush melodies and free improvisational sections.
A recent focus of Roberta’s has been solo piano performance. Her 2012 CD, Solo, made the “ten best of the year” list of three jazz critics. A 2015 follow-up CD is called Emanation (Solo: Volume 2). Recent solo concerts include Kostel sv. Vavřince in Prague, Reigen in Vienna, Palomar College in San Marcos, CA, An Die Musik in Baltimore and Smalls in New York City.
As an educator, Roberta has held master classes at the Eastman School of Music (where she performed solo and in duet with Marian McPartland), Rutgers University, Cal Arts, Duke University, the Northwestern University Composers’ Colloquium, and others in the U.S., Europe and Japan. She has served as a panelist for the Queens Council on the Arts grant review process and has taught at the Litchfield Jazz Camp and the Vermont Jazz Center. She is also the author of the Jazz Piano Vocabulary series of workbooks.
Roberta occasionally performs on B3 organ at clubs such as the Harlem landmarks Showman’s and the Charles Young American Legion post, as well as leading her own groups at Smalls and Mezzrow. She has written several big band compositions, and is also a self-described “closet singer”. In recent years she has toured Europe several times, including France, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Ukraine and Spain.
The melding of different musical worlds in her youth resulted in Roberta’s unique musical sensibilities and interests. Her numerous recordings reveal an artist equally at home playing standards (Solo, Emanation), free improvising (Poltva, Op Der Schmelz), and composing and arranging her own music (Sides, Colors; Live at the Blue Note). For Roberta, there are no genre boundaries, only the opportunity to make exceptional music.