In this first week of the Festive Season, SFJAZZ presents the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet – showcasing the talents of yet another talented member of the extraordinarily gifted Marsalis family – who in 2011 were the recipients of an NEA Jazz Master award.
Originally a drummer on the New Orleans jazz scene, Jason’s versatility includes a stretch with the Marcus Roberts Trio, the co-founding of an Afro-Caribbean jazz combo, Los Hombres Caliente, with percussionist Bill Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, a highly impressive list of recordings, and he has also performed internationally with conductor Seiji Ozawa in interpretations of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F.
Having turned his attention to the vibraphone in recent years, Jason formed his Vibes Quartet, with Austin Johnson on piano, Will Goble on bass and Dave Potter on drums. The Quartet focuses on original material by Marsalis, but also explores a wide range of material which includes compositions by Bobby Hutcherson and Hermeto Pascoal, and has now produced two albums – A World of Mallets in 2013, and most recently, an album entitled 21st Century Trad Band.
There’s an argument to be made that Jason Marsalis is the most interesting musician in his illustrious jazz clan. He made his mark as a preternaturally astute drummer in two sui generis ensembles, the Marcus Roberts Trio and Los Hombres Calientes. But he’s forged a new identity on the vibraphone as the leader of a smart and dynamically charged quartet, the young ensemble he brings to the Joe Henderson Lab. At 37, he has yet to earn the “jazz master” imprimatur bestowed on the Marsalis family by the NEA in 2011, but he’s well on his way.
For a jazz musician, hailing from the Marsalis family carries obvious benefits, and certain specific challenges. With the achievement bar set dauntingly high, Marsalis siblings risk being ridiculed or simply ignored if they don’t measure up.
Jason Marsalis, the youngest of the illustrious New Orleans clan of musicians who were collectively named NEA Jazz Masters in 2011, defied long odds by racking up a singular set of accomplishments unequaled by his father, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, and his older brothers, saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton and trombonist/producer Delfeayo.
A standout drummer as a teenager who went on to play an essential role in two celebrated ensembles, the Marcus Roberts Trio and Los Hombres Calientes, he’s come into his own as a bandleader playing an entirely different instrument, the vibraphone. The Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet opens a four-night run at the SFJazz Center’s Joe Henderson Lab on Dec. 4.
Marsalis credits his father with planting the seed for his instrumental transformation. “He suggested I take up the vibraphone when I was in high school, but that was in a classical context,” says Marsalis, 37, from his home in New Orleans. “Years later, I became more serious about exploring my own music on the vibes, and I started to hear a sound that I wanted.”
Marsalis recently released his second album with the Vibes Quartet, “21st Century Trad Band” (Basin Street Records), and the project is something of a manifesto. Featuring an excellent but still evolving young band with pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer David Potter, the group is very much a reflection of Marsalis’ chronologically encompassing aesthetic.
In jazz, “trad” means traditional New Orleans jazz from the first decades of the 20th century. While the style came to be called Dixieland when it experienced a popular revival decades later, in New Orleans the polyphonic group improvisation associated with trad was never eclipsed by later developments like big band swing and bebop.
But few jazz musicians of Marsalis’ generation (or the two or three previous) are familiar with trad. He found his current crew, all of whom hail from North Carolina, as impressionable undergrads at Florida State University, where he was an artist in residence with the Marcus Roberts Trio in 2003.
“Musicians today are not going to be comfortable with trad, but these guys had a certain respect for that style,” he says. “When I would call a trad tune like ‘Hindustan,'” a piece first recorded in 1918, “they enjoyed playing it. They don’t look down on it as an old style that doesn’t pertain to them.”
More than anything, Marsalis’ beautifully calibrated group approach flows from his formative experience with pianist Marcus Roberts, who spent nearly a decade in Wynton Marsalis’ band. Jason joined Roberts’ trio at 17 as a drummer, and he’s played a crucial role in the development of the group’s balletic control of dynamics, tempo and texture.
If Roberts instilled in Marsalis an orchestral and narrative approach to the trap set, his experience in Los Hombres Calientes, which he cofounded with Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, provided a high-performance vehicle designed to explore the African rhythm continuum from the motherland to the vast New World African Diaspora.
“I was interested in world music, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Haitian music, and Los Hombres came at the right time,” Marsalis says. “As a drummer, it helped open up my drum playing.”
Just because he’s turned over the drum kit to another player in the Vibes Quartet doesn’t mean he isn’t acutely attuned to every rhythmic detail.
He took drummer Dave Potter under his wing when the young percussionist started asking him questions. It’s a high-pressure situation for a young player, but Potter has embraced the challenge, and most nights he’s flourishing. And if the drummer’s taking care of business, a jazz band is more than halfway home.
“Jason’s concept of the group is definitely like an amalgamation of all the groups he’s played with, and also his family,” Potter says. “From Marcus, there’s the focus on dynamics and variation, with arrangements that are extremely tight and well orchestrated. But Jason also gets a lot from Branford’s and Wynton’s earlier groups, being very spontaneous when the improv sections begin. He wants the group to have the freedom to go any direction that the music takes us.”
It’s one thing to stand at the crossroads of musical tradition and modern sound. It’s quite another to stand at this crossroads as the youngest member of the Marsalis dynasty, New Orleans’ famous “first family of jazz.” Percussionist Jason Marsalis hopes to prove the modern relevancy of traditional New Orleans music — whether in a standard jazz ensemble or with fusion sensation Snarky Puppy — and to this end, he brings his Vibes Quartet to SFJAZZ this week in promotion of his new record, The 21st Century Trad Band.
Marsalis has played the drums from a young age, adding the vibraphone to his active repertoire in 2000. The large mallet instrument, resembling a xylophone or marimba but distinguished by a series of resonator tubes topped with motorized valves (which provide the eponymous vibrato), holds a distinguished if limited role in jazz, with luminaries ranging from Lionel Hampton to the Bay Area’s own Bobby Hutcherson.
Like his outspoken and conservative older brother Wynton, Jason has sparked some controversy within the jazz community — in this case centering around a 2010 YouTube video in which Marsalis disparaged musicians whom he described as prioritizing certain technical ambitions over melody, history, and consideration for the audience. Yet this antagonistic rhetoric obscures a serious commitment to musical achievement, and looking past it reveals a genuinely appealing love of the art form that both sides of the tradition/modernism debate can agree on. We checked in with Marsalis ahead of his SFJAZZ residency, which runs Thursday, Dec. 4 through Sunday, Dec. 7.
Your new record is called The 21st Century Trad Band — what does it mean to be a “trad” band in the 21st century, and how does that differ from a “trad” band in the 20th century?
A trad band has to do with traditional jazz music that really is associated with New Orleans. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about it in this sense: It is true that the music started and was formulated in New Orleans, but unfortunately people see that music as a separate culture, and not the roots of all American music. For example, a lot of people don’t realize that if you take a musician like Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet or Jelly Roll Morton — that’s who all the musicians after came out of. But you have a lot of musicians who see that music as old and dated and not a music that anybody wants to listen to anymore. Or they see it as some separate thing that’s different from Charlie Parker, and it’s really not.
So that’s why I have mixed feelings about it. It’s music that I love playing, and it’s a music that is definitely relevant in New Orleans, but it’s unfortunate that others don’t see the value in that music. I mentioned the 21st century because you’re starting to see updates to the traditional music. You have guys that still play these tunes; they play the same style but it sounds like 2014, it doesn’t sound like 1920.
While that’s great, on the other hand, there haven’t been enough updates to the music. You hardly hear traditional elements used in more contemporary or abstract writing in jazz music, and you don’t hear traditional rhythms being used in other forms of music. That’s a thing that I’ve been trying to do, and I think there are other people starting to do the same thing.That’s the difference. In the 20th century it was a music definitely played within the style even when musicians brought in their own ideas, but for me the 21st century is about taking the traditional elements and bringing them into other settings.
You’ve referred to jazz as “open architecture” — is this what you’re talking about?
Yes, it is. It’s open in the sense that you can bring any music into this art form. Traditional music doesn’t have to stay in one style, it can be used in many other styles. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the rhythm of Motown music comes out of New Orleans music. If you think about the press rolls, or the roll of drums in Louis Armstrong’s music, and you re-orchestrate that in a different way you’re going to get a lot of the rhythms you hear in Motown or rock and roll. It’s really the same sort of rhythms, just re-orchestrated on different parts of the drums.
What have musicians lost by not paying attention to the tradition?
Most importantly: content, substance, and context. When you study the history of the music there’s so much you can gain from it. The more you learn, the more informed of a musician you’ll be, and the more context you’ll have inside of the music.
You’ve grown up quite literally in the history of the music. What have you gained from that perspective, growing up as a Marsalis?
I was fortunate to grow up around musicians who were serious about studying music, and they were serious about achieving the highest level of music that they could. I consider myself very lucky in that regard.
What inspired you to take up the vibraphone more seriously?
Well, it only had a handful of contributors, compared to other instruments, and I felt there was a lot that could still be done with the vibes. There were things that I could express melodically that were different from the drums.
Who are you influenced by, as a vibraphonist?
Lionel Hampton, for sure, and Milt Jackson. But also Bobby Hutcherson, and to another degree Gary Burton. Even some of the newer generation players, like Stefon Harris and Warren Wolf — there’s things I’ve learned from them. I’m pretty much interested in anybody who’s played the instrument.
I’ve noticed more vibraphone players in the last 10 or 15 years, starting perhaps with the prominent use of vibraphone in Dave Holland’s band. Do you think there’s any kind of resurgence at all?
It’s funny, Dave Holland uses Steve Nelson, but Nelson’s been around for a while. Nelson was in a lot of ways the go-to guy in the 90’s, but he was more of a sideman. He’s one whose music I’ve checked out. I remember his work with Mulgrew Miller, for example, very fondly.
I think with Nelson in Dave Holland’s band, you may have had different guys paying attention to him that may have not, previously. But while there have always been people who play the instrument, I think there’s been a resurgence. Even in New Orleans, when I decided to play the vibes, within two years there were three more vibraphonists in the city. I think you’ll hear about more and more people playing the instrument.
Have you played the new SFJAZZ Center before?
I have not. I did a show once with Marcus Roberts for SFJAZZ (but not at the Center). This will definitely be my first show there as a leader. It’s great to play four nights in a row, because the music gets better and better the more you play, so I’m looking forward to doing this.
by Howard Reich Chicago Tribune November 21, 2014
What else does drummer Jason Marsalis play? Vibes, and quite well.
Listeners often think of Jason Marsalis first as Wynton Marsalis’ younger brother and second as a New Orleans drummer.
But like his siblings – including saxophonist Branford and trombonist Delfeayo – Jason stands as a first-rate musician-bandleader in his own right. He also happens to be a fine vibraphonist, as he reaffirmed Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase. Leading the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet, he delivered original compositions and standards with elegance and grace, evoking a legendary ensemble that’s clearly a model for him: the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Nowhere were the parallels between the two units more apparent than in Marsalis’ “Characters,” from his “In a World of Mallets” album of 2013. For starters, the piece unfolded gently, at a relaxed tempo and with an easy but imperturbable sense of swing one associates with the MJQ. Drummer Dave Potter’s deft brushwork brought a nocturnal atmosphere to the proceedings, while Marsalis’ sinuous melodic lines and ultra-sophisticated chord progressions attested to his skills as composer. In many ways, Marsalis’ “Characters” showed the influence of ballads by MJQ pianist John Lewis, but with an unpredictability of line that proved to be a Marsalis signature throughout this performance.
The vibraphonist’s phrase-making was decidedly more animated in “The 18th Letter of Silence,” from Marsalis’ newly released album, “The 21st Century Trad Band.” Like most of Marsalis’ compositions, this piece bristled with melodic invention, the vibraphonist emphasizing linear playing, sharp instrumental attacks and irrepressible rhythmic urgency. Pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer Potter stayed with the leader in some of the most hard-driving music of this set.
“Blues Can Be Abstract, Too” crystallized Marsalis’ views on tradition and innovation, the vibraphonist drawing upon blues conventions but updating them with idiosyncratic turns of phrase and a complex overall structure. Here was the Marsalis Vibes Quartet at its most tautly controlled, the vibist presiding over a meticulously conceived arrangement in which each musician’s contributions emerged right on cue.
But no two pieces in this set conveyed the same sensibility, which underscored the many musical curiosities that drive Marsalis’ work. In his “Ballet Class,” the formalities and harmonies of classical music dovetailed with nascent ragtime rhythm. Jason Weaver’s “Blues for Now,” from “The 21st Century Trad Band” album, inspired Marsalis to take an orchestral approach to his instrument, the vibraphonist carefully layering themes and colors through the course of the work.
Some of the most ethereally beautifully music of the evening emerged in “Love Always Comes as a Surprise,” which originated in – of all places – the film “Madagascar 3.” Marsalis produced florid improvisation here, developing the tune’s underlying harmonies in softly shimmering tones.
There were standards, too, Marsalis letting “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” speak sweetly for itself, the tune slightly embellished but delivered without pretense. When it came to an uptempo version of “You and the Night and the Music,” however, Marsalis took flight, his brisk tempo setting the stage for deep swing rhythm and intelligent transformation.
In none of this music, however, was instrumental virtuosity presented as a goal. So though there’s no shortage of jazz vibraphonists who show more technical wizardry (Stefon Harris) or innovative audacity (Jason Adasiewicz), the musicianship, seriousness and tonal beauty of Marsalis’ art were unmistakable.
To him, it’s all about the music, not the musician, a point he reiterated in his arrangement of Cliff Hines’ “Interzone,” with its gripping repeated-note theme and his four-mallet chordal voicings. By the end of the set, Marsalis had covered more musical facets, forms and expressions than one typically encounters in a single evening, and it’s a good bet there’s more where that came from.
The most immediately arresting aspect of last night’s performance by Jason Marsalis at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College was the profoundly cool sound he summoned from the instrument before him. Known through area concerts over the past two decades as a drummer (including a 2005 show on this very stage), the youngest sibling of New Orleans’ famed Marsalis family favored the vibraphone and the melodically lustrous but sonically reserved tone it conjured.
On the opening bars of Blues Can Be Abstract, Too, the vibraphone’s notes hung liked chilled colors in the air that grew more expansive when Marsalis chose to add pedal induced sustain. The tune served as a beautiful introduction not only to the instrument but to what the bandleader chose to do with it.
Fronting what he aptly calls his Vibes Quartet, Marsalis flirted with jazz tradition and tried out more than a few progressive ideas. But that hardly translated into the big band majesty Lionel Ham\pton brought to the instrument from the 1930s onward or the scholarly combo improvisations defined a generation later by Gary Burton. Aside from a few fleeting passages where Burton’s innovations in playing the vibes with four mallets instead of the usual two surfaced, Marsalis followed his own muses, including a few from his native New Orleans.
On Blues for Now, one of eight com positions performed from the Vibes Quartet’s second and newest album, The 21st Century Trad Band, a rugged Marsalis solo on the vibes led into a tight trio run instigated by pianist Austin Johnson. The music became noticeably more playful during the checklist of conflicting grooves that set the stage for The Man with Two Left Feet and its jovial percussive breakdown from drummer David Porter. And for pure Southern melody, nothing beat the curiously titled 18th Letter of Silence where a sunny vibes stride by Marsalis quickly served as a contrast to the dynamics of his rhythm section. Johnson got the lion’s share of the solo spotlight but Potter and bassist Will Goble drove the tune.
Ultimately, it was the show-closing title composition to The 21st Century Trad Band that defined the performance with a mash-up of familiar melodies (When the Saints Go Marching In was the most detectable), twisted bits of swing and some furious syncopation. The elements may have been rooted in the past but the end results brought the music into the here and now with the tonal splendor of the vibes leading the charge.
The Marsalis family is The First Family Of Jazz with father Ellis and sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. Jason, the youngest brother, has been making great music for years as a jazz drummer.
Recently, though, he broadened his percussion palette by mastering the vibraphone. We were pleased to host the newly-minted Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet in the KPLU Performance Studio. The band played three original compositions. In between songs, Jason and KPLU’s Abe Beeson talked about Jason’s love for the vibes and the new projects the band is working on.
by Dave Gelly the Guardian November 8, 2014 Not just vibraphone, but glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba and even tubular bells. The youngest of the remarkable Marsalis brothers plays them all, sometimes multi-tracking several at once. This is an engaging set, tuneful and good-humoured, with titles like Blessed Unrest and The Man With Two Left Feet. Marsalis has a wonderfully crisp technique and a flair for inventing catchy melodies. As for the title number, you’ve never heard When the Saints Go Marching In sound anything like this. The rest of the quartet – pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer David Potter – really shine here.
Jason Marsalis received his formal introduction to the drums at the age of 3. That’s when his parents, the household heads of the famed Marsalis family that changed the face of jazz beginning in the early ’80s, bought him a toy kit.
He also studied violin at 5 years old. But Marsalis’ current instrument of choice, the supremely cool vibraphone, was still years away from making an entrance into his life.
“I first got a set of vibes while in high school but I didn’t seriously start to do performances on it until around 2000,” said the youngest of the Marsalis brothers, who performs a free convocation concert with his Vibes Quartet on Thursday at Berea College. “It’s an instrument I’ve worked on bit by bit.
“The first appeal, honestly, was the fact that there have not been a lot of vibraphonists in jazz music compared to the number of horn players. The second appeal was that there were a lot of possibilities that just haven’t been explored with the instrument. Also, there’s the fact that it’s a percussion instrument, just like drums. But now we’re dealing with an instrument that produces actual notes and melody.
“Since I had already studied violin and already studied music to that level, I thought it would be great to play an instrument that expresses my understanding of melody and harmony.”
One would think jazz music of any style would have surrounded Marsalis during childhood, especially with older siblings Branford (a saxophonist), Wynton (a trumpeter) and Delfeayo (a trombonist) in the house. But the reality is that for much of his upbringing, they weren’t around.
“Because I was born so late, they were all out of the house by the time I was 6 years old. My brothers were all musicians who were serious about their craft and learning as much as they could. So what I learned from my brothers and my father (veteran New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis) was to learn all the music I could to become a better musician as well as a more knowledgeable one.”
Although the youngest Marsalis had racked up considerable roadwork experience by the age of 9, it was his role as drummer in the trio of pianist Marcus Roberts beginning in 1994 that garnered attention from jazz audiences around the world. Marsalis still plays regularly with Roberts around his own band projects.
“I met Jason when he was 7 or 8,” said Roberts prior to his September concert at the Opera House. “He started working with me, I think, in November of ’94, so it’s now been 20 years. So I just think the world of Jason. He is a brilliant mind. He’s also a fantastic drummer, in my opinion, the greatest in a generation.
“Jason represents what you want to see when you mentor somebody. What you really want to see is that one day they end up knowing more about what you thought you taught them than you do. In other words, at this point, he’s teaching me about drums.”
Of course, on Thursday, Marsalis won’t be playing drums. He will be manning the vibes for the sleek new tunes from his quartet’s new album, The 21st Century Trad Band.
“Really the sound and concept of the group started to gel about six years ago and has been evolving ever since. But the reason why the group spirit is so strong is really quite simple. It’s because the musicians want to play this music. They believe in working together and achieving the highest level possible to play music. But they also just love to play live.”
A river of New Orleans jazz music runs deeply through the Marsalis family. From father Ellis through Branford, Wynton, Ellis Jr. and to the cousins beyond, music is the lifeblood that flows through their veins. Little surprise then that Jason, the youngest of the Marsalis family, carries on the proud tradition. Jason Marsalis and the Jason Marsalis Quartet bring their love of all things jazz to Dimitrious’ Jazz Alley Wednesday Nov. 5. One show only, the music begins at 7:30 p.m.
Jason Marsalis has been drumming all his life. In the last 15 years, he added the vibraphone to his repertoire. It is this fusion of percussive sound that he features in his newest album, 21st Century Trad Band. In a live appearance on KPLU’s Studio Sessions, Marsalis was asked about musical influence.
“Well my family first, but I also was strongly impacted by the Afro-Cuban sounds of Abelardo Barroso, Bebo Valdez, and Armando Parazo,” said Marsalis.
When asked about his current album Marsalis said, “People hear ‘Trad Band” and they think that was something from a long time ago. I want to show the people that it’s something that can work today.”
Marsalis’ group includes Austin Johnson (piano) Will Goble (bass) Dave Potter (drums) and Marsalis, concentrating on vibraphone but also taking a turn on the skins himself.
Marsalis’ career was briefly derailed by Hurricane Katrina but has since taken on new life. His 2009 release “Music Update” was his first release as bandleader. The album was Jason’s celebratory response to his family winning the distinguished NEA Jazz Masters Award. Since that time, his career has only flourished. 2013 was a monumental year in which Marsalis released his next recording as a leader on vibes entitled “In a World of Mallets”. The album went to Number 1 on the CMJ Radio Charts and also won an Offbeat Magazine award, a New Orleans music magazine, for best Contemporary Jazz Album.
Marsalis’ fans can expect to hear a wide-ranging eclectic set at Jazz Alley. From the titular track to the off-beat “For the Man With Two Left Feet” the Marsalis Quartet keeps the music humming. Featured are Jazz riffs and signature long pieces that show off the abilities owned by everyone in the group. The show is designed as an homage to jazz, blues, and the myriad music that has shaped Marsalis’ life.