by Andrew Gilbert
San Jose Mercury News
December 2, 2014
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.”