Tag Archives: Irvin Mayfield

In a World of Mallets – liner notes by Philip Marshall

Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet In a World of MalletsTradition. But not just tradition.

How do you pay serious and reverent homage to what has come before, and yet further all forms of music while teetering atop the shoulders of the giants who came before you? This is the question that Jason Marsalis addresses every waking moment of each day. However, this should not be surprising for one of the junior elder statesmen of jazz. And before you decry such a notion in your mind that anyone at age 35 could be an “elder statesman” as laughable at best, consider some of the more glaring fine points of his career. Jason Marsalis is the youngest member of what is considered to be New Orleans’ “First Family of Jazz”. To that end, he had the benefit of exposure to all forms of music and the wisdom and knowledge that had been distilled through his father, a performer and a university professor, and three musical brothers of the five in his family.

Jason Marsalis started taking drum lessons at age six with legendary New Orleans composer and drummer James Black. At age seven, he started playing publicly, sitting in with his father, as well as playing the 1984 World’s Fair with his brother, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. By 1986, he was playing Delfeayo’s recital at the Berklee College of Music; around which time he also first appeared on television, as well as taking the first of three lessons with Alan Dawson. By 1990, he was playing full shows, and was on TV again, this time doing a guest spot with Delfeayo, and their brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and their father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. His first recording was in 1991, for Delfeayo’s album Pontius Pilate’s Decision. It was also in 1991, that he covered for drumming force of nature, Jeff “Tain” Watts, on several of Branford’s gigs. This was followed by an appearance with Delfeayo in 1992, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; a show on which Branford’s quartet with Robert Hurst on bass, Kenny Kirkland on piano, and Watts on drums, were the “house band.” It wasn’t until 1994, that he played a full gig with his brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s septet; filling in for another native New Orleanian, the soulful, Herlin Riley. But that was not the highlight of that year, for 1994 was the first year that he joined pianist Marcus Roberts as a full time member of Roberts’ trio; the same trio that would, in 1996, begin working with Maestro Seiji Ozawa, addressing the George Gershwin compositions, Rhapsody in Blue, and Concerto in F. – A performance major at Loyola University in New Orleans, he dropped out of college in 1998 because he was too busy performing! It was also that same year he released his first album, Year of the Drummer, and co-formed the group Los Hombres Calientes, with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers. As well that year, he produced his father’s Columbia Records release, Twelve’s It. In addition, he started playing traditional styles of jazz that year with clarinetist, Dr. Michael White. In 2000 he took to seriously studying vibraphone; an instrument he first obtained in 1993. Around the same time, he released his second album, Music in Motion. A last minute call from Wynton in 2001 to cover for Herlin Riley, resulted in the album with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, All Rise. A televised 2003 concert in Berlin w/Seiji Ozawa and the Berliner Philharmoniker of Concerto in F, was turned into a DVD; then followed by a recording of the same piece with Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra, that was released only in Japan. In 2008, less than ten years after he started taking vibraphone seriously, and just over fifteen years after meeting and playing with Lionel Hampton for the first time, he was asked to fill Hamp’s roll on vibes, in A Celebration of Lionel Hampton, which has included such luminaries as, Dianne Schuur, Candido, Red Holloway, and Curtis Fuller. He recorded Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, in 2009 with Delfeayo’s big band, following that with his first release as a leader on vibraphone, Music Update. In 2011, Ellis, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, were collectively presented the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters award; the first and so far only family of musicians to be presented with such an honor. By the close of 2012, he had recorded yet again with the Marcus Roberts trio, on collaboration with banjoist extraordinaire Béla Fleck, entitled, “Across the Imaginary Divide.”

It has been said, that, “birds of a feather flock together.” It has also been said, that “people judge you by the company you keep.” Judging from the company Jason Marsalis has been keeping, and adding up just these select few highlights of a career that is just shy of thirty years, the sum total shows that he is, without a doubt, a “junior elder statesmen of jazz.” – If you should disagree, then just go back and do the math again; it will come to you. So back to the question: How does one “pay serious and reverent homage to what has come before, and yet further all forms of music, while teetering atop the shoulders of the giants who came before you?” – For Jason Marsalis to even begin to answer such a difficult and loaded question, all begins with one word: discipline.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, (in part), defines discipline as, “a field of study; training that corrects, molds and perfects mental faculties or moral character; self-control.” Jason Marsalis defines it as, “The ability to focus on one element that holds everything together.” Laying the foundational elements at each end of the recording, is the character of “Discipline,” who was introduced to us on Mr. Marsalis’s first recording and has appeared several times on each recording thereafter. Until now, the “Discipline” tracks have been a series of drum and percussion pieces, comprised of singular drum parts, recorded one on top of the other, (a process known as “over dubbing”), to form a one manned percussion ensemble. Each piece of music in the series, explores a different theme within the rich and varied world of rhythm and percussion.

Jason Marsalis and his quartet in a world of malletsIn the first track, a “through composed” piece entitled Discipline Discovers a World of Mallets, Mr. Marsalis takes the character into territory, personally uncharted heretofore, and is a very adept story teller. While the opening strains sound like the cacophony heard in a music room filled with first year percussion majors, this is actually the calculated intent. While the students practice, each lost in his own “world of mallets”, the tubular bells twice sound the notes of a clock’s chimes that signal the top of the hour, and therefore, the start of class. The students continue to play, until the bells sound the notes of a traditional New Orleans trumpet call; a signal to all musicians in the first line to pay attention to the leader, as the song is about to begin. – As the actual melody begins, we begin to get a glimpse of the wit, humor and irony that continually peppers Mr. Marsalis’s writing. Ever the merry prankster, both in his compositions as well as his soloing, this piece blends various musical ideas and sources that might not normally co-exist. Yet in the mind and hands of Mr. Marsalis, they tend to do so in a most harmonious fashion; both literally and figuratively. A non-traditional take on a traditional I – IV – V progression blues in the key of C, some of the more interesting interwoven elements happen within the second statement of the melody. The xylophone playing a key part of the overture from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (a ubiquitous percussion audition piece), the vibraphone playing a Lionel Hampton-esque boogie woogie, and hidden in plain sight, the glockenspiel playing the chorus of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” In January 2010, a video was uploaded to YouTube, in which Mr. Marsalis discusses what he terms the Jazz Nerds International, otherwise referred to as the “JNI.” As you might imagine would happen just by the mere virtue of having the last name “Marsalis”, the video caused a bit of a stir. In a post on Facebook, Mr. Marsalis defended his position and sought to further explain his terms. Blues Can Be Abstract Too, is nothing short of a repudiation of the idea that such things as blues, and swing are passé, and cannot be relevant within the current trends of jazz. Mr. Marsalis considers this to be nothing short of what he commonly refers to as “innovation propaganda.” – The tune, written in 4/4, explores abstraction in part, through tempo changes. Mr. Marsalis achieves this by alternating sections and phrases that are not “in time,” thereby capitalizing on the freedom from time just long enough to reset the tempo to something that is faster or slower. The first solo has Mr. Marsalis playing with a wild, yet calculated abandon, at a tempo that is around 300 beats per minute, or “bpm.” As the tempo changes to a medium swing feel for the second solo, pianist Austin Johnson, comes out of the gate sounding as if Thelonious Monk had been hired for the session. As the piano solo ends, at 3:30 Mr. Marsalis, (in what would be a seeming musical incursion to most), quotes the melody from the chorus of New Orleans’ rapper Mystikal’s Shake Ya Ass. Blues Can Be Abstract Too, is however, not the whole of the statement to the JNI, but merely a calling card; and one of many musical points to be made within this recording.

Ballet Class is the first of three compositions that have been re-recorded. The song’s classical influence is unmistakable, and is based upon the C-Major scale. While having a “classical” perspective, the tune is also improvised within a jazz context. Mr. Marsalis wanted to emphasize that, “classical music is rhythmic music.” (In point of fact, the song is loosely based on the feel of a “bolero”.) As well he wanted to note that classical music, as such, was not only a rhythmic music, but as well and at one point in time, “dance” music. In speaking with Mr. Marsalis, he told me that he felt the rhythmic aspects and complexities within classical music to be vastly misunderstood, under emphasized and undervalued; especially within educational circles, as it relates to the teaching of rhythm with regard to various “classical” styles. Mr. Marsalis wanted to take the classical elements of harmony, melody, and (in particular) rhythm, and approach them from a jazz perspective, thereby allowing the ensemble to move the music in various directions. Mr. Marsalis has found while performing this particular piece in various situations, and with various musicians, that anyone, of any musical background, can play within the framework of the song. In this particular musical setting, there is an effortless flow between the straight rhythmic feel of classical music, and the swing of jazz. Once again showing his ability to reference other pieces of music, thereby showing musical relation, as well as a wry sense of humor, look for quotations from: Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the main melody of the 2nd movement of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, and The Celebrated Chop Waltz by Euphemia Allen, more commonly known by the title, “Chopsticks.”

It has been said, that “inspiration is where you find it.” I am reasonably certain that many of us have some form of childhood association with the aforementioned tune, “Chopsticks.” And for many American children born after 1940, the Tom and Jerry cartoon series produced by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, are equally as much a part of the childhood experience, if not more. In 1963, noted animator Chuck Jones, (late of Warner Brothers), took over the “Tom and Jerry” franchise. The release of the animated short feature, Puss n’ Boats, on April 4th, 1966, was the first of the Jones’ series of Tom and Jerry cartoons to feature the music of composer Carl Brandt. It was this “incidental” music that inspired Mr. Marsalis to compose the next piece, Characters. (The title is short for the term “cartoon characters.”) – As the story was relayed to me, Mr. Marsalis was watching the aforementioned cartoon, when he heard a motif that he found to be very interesting. However, as is the nature of such scoring, the motif in question did not last very long; much to his personal chagrin. So, Mr. Marsalis appropriated the motif, and built upon it. [The passage of music used as the basis for this piece can be heard between, 0:53-1:07 of the cartoon.] The result is this beautifully crafted ballad.

Blues for the 29%ers is the last of the three tunes previously recorded on Mr. Marsalis’s album, Music Update. The song’s title is in reference an article on the website crooksandliars.com, dated June 14th, 2007. The basic premise of the article was that America’s 43rd President’s job approval rating was down to an all-time low of 29%. At the same time, of the same over all group polled, only 19% believed America was “headed in the right direction.” In theory, this means that 10%, of the 29% who felt that Mr. Bush was “doing a good job,” seemed to feel that he was doing equally as good a job taking the country down the wrong path. As the “blues” is considered music of the people; and in particular, oppressed people everywhere, and therefore has inherent universality, it seemed only fitting to construct the tune within a blues framework. Hence the title of the tune, Blues for the 29%ers (Down to 19).

“Innovation propaganda,” (in Mr. Marsalis’s terms, and as it relates to jazz music), is the idea that the music must change, and that innovation (somehow) comes about, by almost completely foregoing all that has come before; in particular, blues and swing. If Blues Can Be Abstract Too was the opening musical salvo in eschewing such ideas regarding proposed “innovation” as non-sense, then the updated version of Blues for the 29%ers is only a further exposition of Mr. Marsalis’s point. Given the overall rhythmic complexity of this 4/4 blues in D-Flat, there is little doubt that card carrying members of the JNI, if actually trying to play or transcribe the tune, would find it harder than they had ever imagined a “blues” could be. – For starters, the form is 16 bars, and not the standard 12 bars. While the melody is being played on the vibraphone from the very start of the tune, (beat 1), the rhythm section does not come in until the 4th beat of that first measure. To further rhythmically challenge both player and listener, the entrance of the rhythm section is directly followed on vibraphone by one ¼ note triplet, which ends on beat 2. To the listener, beat 2 actually feels like beat 1, and therefore feels like the actual “top of the form” of the tune; though in reality it is not. This is one of the changes incorporated into this composition, which differentiates it from the previous recording. – Despite the rhythmic oddities, the song’s form resolves itself, back to beat 1, every second time through. As well, Mr. Marsalis realised that during the solos, he could use any of the melodies from the last 8 bars, as a cue to the rhythm section that there was about to be a break. During that small break for the rhythm section, Mr. Marsalis could chose to play one of the three melodies at a different tempo, thereby changing the feel and mood of the song. – Mr. Marsalis explains it this way, “During the last 8 bars, there is a riff that is repeated three times, in different keys. And what I realised was that I could play any three of those riffs to let the rhythm section know that when we get to bar 15 of the tune we will break for 2 bars, and within those two bars I’m going to play the melody to the tune, (the opening statement), but I could play it at whatever tempo I wanted to play it at.” In fact, as he changes the tempo, Mr. Marsalis (whether consciously or unconsciously) engages in metric modulation. This is in short, taking the current tempo, and subdividing the note’s value, (for example: cutting the note into one half or one third of its pulse value to make things slower, or possibly doubling the note’s value to make it faster), and thereby establishing an altogether different tempo, while still maintaining a linear and traceable basis from which the original tempo came. Mind you this is not a new device to be employed within a jazz context. Examples of metric modulation can be found on such recordings as Charles Mingus recording of Prayer for Passive Resistance from Mingus at Antibes, Bill EvansMy Bells from The Interplay Sessions, as well as the tune Father Time off Mr. Marsalis’s brother Wynton’s title album. This changing of tempos is the other change made to this song. – Still, it is the change back, from the 1/8 notes in the original version that allowed the melody to always resolve back to beat 1, to the ¼ triplet figure that now lands on beat 2, (thus causing it to feel as though it were beat 1), that is the conundrum to the ear. An aural “sleight of hand,” if you will. So much so, that due to the rhythmic displacement, someone trying to transcribe this tune, would not perceive it to be in a 4/4 time signature. In fact, what they would hear would be: two bars of 7/4, followed by 3 bars of ¾, two more bars of 7/4, a singular bar of ¾, followed by 3 bars of 4/4, one bar of ¾, one bar of 5/4, and lastly one bar of 4/4. – And if this makes the music more palatable for members of the JNI to absorb, incorporate, and thereby invigorate their music, by adding these elements of blues and swing, then so be it. However, if they should wish to break the music down to mere number crunching in the hope of it being edgy and “innovative,” they have missed the point. To that end, the music will continue to suffer, and will cease to have even the faintest shreds of being a musical form that people from any country and all walks of life can relate to.

My Joy, is a composition by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson from his 1967 Blue Note release Oblique. While not an official piece in the ongoing “Discipline” series, (the use of the word “Discipline” in the title implies an original composition by Mr. Marsalis), it is likewise comprised of percussion “overdubs.” This was the first piece of music by Mr. Hutcherson, to catch Mr. Marsalis’s attention, and he wished to record this selection, and place it in the context of a percussion ensemble. It is interesting to note, that this number, as well as the two “Discipline” cuts, were all recorded without the use of a metronome; otherwise known as a “click-track.”

In the first of three tunes, each written by the other individuals within the group, Ill Bill is the contribution of 29 year old drummer Dave Potter. Mr. Potter has studied under the tutelage of Professor Leon Anderson, the director of the Jazz Studies program at Florida State University. This song was originally written as an assignment during his Masters Course work. The task at hand was to write a piece of music in the style of Thelonious Monk. While I would love to tell you the backstory of the song’s title, I have been sworn to secrecy by Mr. Potter. Still, it may be said that the song is dedicated to all the “William’s” in Mr. Potter’s life. – The backing rhythm section, comprised of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Potter, and bassist Will Goble, has been performing as a trio since 2006. Mr. Marsalis first heard this tune when Messrs.’ Johnson, Potter and Goble sat in on one of Ellis Marsalis’ gigs at Snug Harbor, in New Orleans. As he listened, Mr. Marsalis thought to himself that the melody and groove would work well on vibes, and set about to learning it; then decided to record it.

Like the hot sauce that is its namesake, Louisiana Gold is a spicy number from 28 year old pianist Austin Johnson. The idea for the song came about while Mr. Johnson was heavily immersed in listening to Harry Connick, Jr.’s album Lofty’s Roach Soufflé. Mr. Marsalis first heard this song in its formative stages, and was interested to play the number once Mr. Johnson had finished composing it. When all was said and done, despite his musical prowess, even Mr. Marsalis felt the tune to be most challenging. (Then again what’s not to find challenging about a song whose chords change every two beats?) Still, it didn’t stop him from sneaking in a quotation from the Harry Warren and Al Dubin tune, “Lulu’s Back in Town.”

As the story was relayed to me, Mr. Johnson once had a truck that was affectionately known as, “Big Girl.” Sadly, Big Girl’s life was cut short in a tragic accident. In memoriam, bassist Will Goble composed a ballad, “Big Girl’s Last Ride.” In the course of performing the piece one night, they announced the name of the tune. An audience member came up to him after the show and gushed about how much they had enjoyed the song, Big Earl’s Last Ride. Recognizing the potential tawdry implications of the original title, (especially in light of such a beautiful and poignant melody), Mr. Goble chose to defer to the misheard title, and rename the piece. Mr. Goble’s solo effectively conveys a bittersweet melancholy, and shows a great range of sensitivity. Indeed the composition itself is very contemplative; just as any effective ballad should be. This tune was also featured on Mr. Goble’s 2012 recording, Some Stories Tell No Lies. – For his part, Mr. Marsalis sought the opportunity to play slowly, thereby exploiting the natural sustain of his instrument. He furthermore desired to have a solo where the mood clearly reflected that of the song’s melody.

In the late 1990’s, there was a contingent of musicians from Baton Rouge, Louisiana working and/or living in New Orleans. Keyboardist Brian Coogan was one of them. Mr. Marsalis began hiring Mr. Coogan to play piano on gigs where Mr. Marsalis was playing drums. Around 2003, Mr. Marsalis began calling Mr. Coogan regularly for gigs with the vibes quartet. On one such gig, Mr. Coogan brought in an original composition entitled The Nice Mailman’s Happy Song to Ann. Mr. Marsalis felt the tune to be upbeat, and enjoyable to play. Equally as important, he felt the tune to be a perfect vehicle for vibraphone. The concept for the solo came to him the very first time he played the song. The first part of the idea was to play his solo out of time and against the time of what is being played by the rhythm section. The second facet was to play any melodies he could think of over what the rest of the band is playing behind him. The final piece in the equation was to play said melodies, starting very slowly, gradually increasing the tempo to a very fast pace, then ending his solo in a climactic flurry of the abstract and avant-garde. All the while never once playing “in time” with the rest of the group. – Amongst the various melodies that are randomly quoted are, Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy, Poinciana, Tiger Rag (for the LSU Tigers), and Something’s Coming from West Side Story.

The 1971 Miles Davis offering Live Evil, included a guest appearance by Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal. Mr. Pascoal, is not only a talented musician, proficient on a variety of instruments, but he is also a celebrated composer. One of his songs from that album, Nem Um Talvez, (Not Even a Maybe), is contained herein. However, it was not the recording on Davis’s album through which Mr. Marsalis first became exposed to this piece of music. It was instead though father Ellis, who used to perform it unaccompanied. It is no wonder in the least that the younger Marsalis should wish to do the same; but with a slight twist. The twist in this instance, results in the second song performed by Mr. Marsalis under the guise of a percussion ensemble, but not composed by him. Despite its brevity at only 1:37, we are again challenged if we dare to stop and think about it. Not only by the music itself, but the skill that it takes to play a variety of percussion based melodic instruments, all without the aid of a metronome to ground the music in time. Indeed the piece is not “in time” in the least, despite the forward motion of the melody.

“Incidental music” is a term most often applied to music composed for film. This form of background music is often used to establish a mood in relation to a set of visual images. Almost from the very moment that audio and visual mediums were married, musical themes have become a part of our collective culture. For example: If I ask you to think about the music played as Miss Gulch rides her bicycle over to Dorothy’s house to take her dog Toto away in the movie The Wizard of Oz, you are apt to think of it as the wicked witch of the west’s theme. Some themes during the opening credits of a film have become nothing short of iconic. From the eeriness of the cellos in the first strains of the theme from Jaws, to the majestic splendor in the brass during the opening crawl of Star Wars. And what tune leaps to your mind when you hear the phrase, “Bond. James Bond?” Still it only stands to reason why the better and sometimes more grand motifs in this realm register with us; if only for one reason. These sound designs usually occur during the opening credit sequence. How often do you pay attention to the closing credits? My guess would be that not unlike most of the movie going public, once the movie itself is over, you get up and leave. (You are probably not that interested in the foley artists, and are unlikely to hire the people in craft services to cater your next event.) So then, who does stick around for the closing credits? In this instance, the answer to that question would be Jason Marsalis. – Closing Credits was inspired by the rhythm of the music of Klaus Badelt, as featured at the end of the 2003 movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Written in 6/8, Closing Credits springs with vibrancy from the very first note. The interplay between the piano and vibraphone at the very beginning, (where in the piano is playing the melody underneath a repeating line from the vibes), is vaguely reminiscent of the late Dave Brubeck. The melody then switches from the piano to the vibraphone, and is then played another time through. As we then start at the top of the batting order of soloists, we find Mr. Goble leading off with a “one bass hit.” His tone, not unlike that of his mentors Jimmy Blanton and Milt Hinton, is huge. His ideas are both refreshing and very swinging. After the melody is again restated by Mr. Marsalis, it is Mr. Johnson’s turn at bat. His solo is forceful, clearly driving down the line of people like McCoy Tyner, Kenny Kirkland and Marcus Roberts. At this point Mr. Marsalis (like any good manager) seems to take the briefest of melodic moments to confer with his players, before sending drumming powerhouse Dave Potter to the plate. While Mr. Potter’s turn at the mound musically evokes all the tension of a full 3-2 count, he promptly proceeds to load the bases. It is now left to Mr. Marsalis to be the “clean up” man. To that end, he comes fully prepared and loaded for bear; wielding four mallets on this tune as opposed to the two mallets used on other pieces. With his solo acting as a cadenza, and the tune reduced for the briefest of moments to solo vibraphone, we feel all the slow motion sensibilities of watching a ball tumbling through the air; all the while holding our breath in eager anticipation of the impending home run. This is followed by a musical celebration, as if the rhythm section were greeting their newest hero as he steps onto home plate. The mood on the field has indeed changed. Unlike the beginning of the song where the melody is played over hits and chord changes, this time the melody is played once again, but over the groove of the rhythm section. – Of all the pieces on the recording, this is one that truly stands out; a hint, if not almost promise of greater things to come from this group of musicians.

Not everyone is musically inclined. Not everyone can play a musical instrument. Indeed, most have never seriously tried. But somewhere, at some point in time, most everyone has tried to whistle. I am certain that I don’t have to tell you the difficulty involved in carrying a simple tune. Never mind improvising like an instrumentalist over jazz changes! – Whistle for Willie is a children’s book written by Ezra Jack Keats, and first published in 1964. As a boy, Mr. Marsalis owned this book; and it was this book that spurred him to learn how to whistle. In homage to this particular work by Mr. Keats, Mr. Marsalis gives us his Whistle for Willie. The genesis of the song was a bit of a happy accident, one might say. One of the tunes in a normal night’s set was the “Great American Songbook” classic That’s All; which was normally performed on vibraphone. (In fact, Whistle for Willie is based upon the chord changes to That’s All.) During the 2011 Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barquisimeto in Venezuela, on the spur of the moment, Mr. Marsalis decided to whistle the melody to the song. As a result of the positive response he received, he decided to incorporate a whistling feature into the set. – Mr. Marsalis is both incredibly adept, and displays amazing technical prowess. It is even more stunning to note than the entire tune is improvised! The breadth of his musical knowledge, as well as his ability to weave quotations from one song into another, is again at work as he manages to quote from The Magic Song (also known as Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo), as well as saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Witch Hunt.

Most insurers will tell you that there is no such thing as a “happy accident.” Most musicians are apt to tell you otherwise. Such is the case with the last musical offering, Discipline Gets Lost in a World of Mallets. I mentioned before that the Discipline pieces are form of percussion ensemble, with Mr. Marsalis overdubbing all the parts. This piece however, also includes the other band members; albeit in a slightly roundabout way. – The night before Mr. Marsalis was to go into the studio to record all of the Discipline pieces for this album, (tracks 1, 6 and 11), he was in the process of editing the songs featuring the full band. Near the end of Blues Can Be Abstract Too there was a small section of music, (from 3:57 – 4:07), that caught his attention. – [This occurs in a section, known in musical terms as a fermata; and indicates a period of longer duration beyond the notes written value on a sheet of musical notation. Just how long “longer” is, is at the discretion of the conductor or performer.] – Upon hearing this section, the musical wheels of his mind ever turning, he decided in the moment to capture that snippet and make a loop out of it, and then to spontaneously create a piece of music over the top of it. While Discipline Discovers a World of Mallets is “through composed,” meaning that the composition is performed as written, (e.g. without “improvisation”), Discipline Gets Lost in a World of Mallets is a thoroughly improvised and spontaneous musical composition. In contrast to Discipline Discover’s various repetitive 1/16th note patterns, interwoven beneath the tubular bells Oriental tinged melody, Discipline Gets Lost sounds like a Second Line infused Gamelan, this time with the tubular bells leading the parade. (Think about it: When was the last time you heard a “tubular bells” solo?) Mr. Marsalis, in an fit of inspiration, has saved some of his most obscure musical quotations on this album for the final cut. If you listen closely, you will hear passages from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn composition Half the Fun (from the album Such Sweet Thunder), Ornette Coleman’s Broadway Blues, Mop Mop (also known as Boff Boff), and as voiced on both glockenspiel and xylophone, Roy Ayers Everybody Loves the Sunshine.

Music is the reflection of the human experience. Blues is the musical expression of joy and sorrow within both the singular and collective conditions, within that experience. Swing, bothslow and fast, is the pulse within the condition. (Indeed, a lack of pulse leads to a lack of vitality.) When one ceases to have a vital pulse, one dies. As long as jazz music is still in the hands of people like Jason Marsalis and the fine musicians that surround him on all sides, I have no doubt that the music will always have blues and swing, and therefore, vitality! And to that end, such vitality must be deeply and steadfastly rooted, in the only thing that will produce healthy growth for generations to come: Tradition.

A Fireside Chat With Jason Marsalis

by Fred Jung
Jazz Weekly

Having the last name Marsalis amounts to having the distinction of being a Kennedy in American politics. There is a good deal of pressure that comes with being a Marsalis and a certain amount of preconceived biases and expectations. It comes with the territory being the son of Ellis and the younger brother of Branford, Wynton, and Delf. But Jason, the drummer in the family, seems to be handling it all in stride. I spoke with the young Marsalis from his home in New Orleans about being a Marsalis and his new album on Basin Street. It is a portrait of a Marsalis, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let’s start from the beginning.

JASON MARSALIS: I got started playing jazz as a kid when I was six years old. That is when I started playing drums. Jazz music was always something I loved. I loved listening to it and knew that it was something I wanted to play as well. Plus, I had great family support. That was how I really started out playing in New Orleans.

FJ: Was it by process of illumination, with your father Ellis playing piano, Wynton playing trumpet, Branford, saxophone, and Delf, trombone?

JASON MARSALIS: Well, that had nothing to do with it, as far as what my other family members were playing (laughing). The first instrument I played with the violin. That was really my first instrument. My father got some sort of deal through the elementary school that I was attending at the time. When I was three, my mother and father used to play this game with me. They actually had a toy drum set. They had a toy drum set and they would always introduce me like I was on some performance stage or something. They would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we now present to you, the great, wonderful Jason.” I would start banging away. I guess that maybe stuck in my mind somehow, but I eventually choose that instrument a year after playing the violin.

FJ: In a past life, I played the violin, so I am empathetic to your switch.

JASON MARSALIS: Well, when I first started playing the violin, it was hard to play, but I kind of liked playing it. I wasn’t the most serious musician, but I liked playing it. Years later, when I was about twelve years old, a lot of things happened. The instrument got more difficult and I was losing interest and I was also more interested in classical percussion. That had to do with us moving to Richmond, Virginia for three years, which had no jazz scene. I had always played in these student orchestras and I believe it was my last year in Richmond. I was in this youth orchestra and I believe it was the first orchestra that I was in that actually had a percussion section. I was upset that I wasn’t in the percussion section because that is where I wanted to be. To make matters worse, one of the guys playing timpani didn’t know what he was doing. He was playing all kinds of wrong notes and the conductor couldn’t hear it. The violin was getting more difficult as far as playing second position and I was getting less and less interested in playing the violin. I wanted to pursue percussion and so when we moved back to New Orleans, which was the summer of ’89, that is when I decided that I was not going to play violin anymore. However, Fred, I did want to study percussion in classical music.

FJ: Did you feel any pressure at all from the expectations of being a Marsalis?

JASON MARSALIS: Nope. None what so ever. The only time when there is pressure is if I was doing music and I didn’t want to and I only felt like I did it just to either please the family or I felt like I had to live up to something, but that wasn’t happening at all. I loved playing music. Music was something I loved doing. The only pressure that could be possible is maybe living up to a certain legacy and even then, that didn’t affect me at all.

FJ: You worked with your father’s trio for a lengthy period of time, what knowledge did he impart upon you?

JASON MARSALIS: The first thing I learned playing in his trio was how to play on a ballad and how difficult playing on a ballad was. That was one of the first things. The second thing was how to play in a jazz trio, which took me a minute to conceptualize. I also gained a certain respect for standards.

FJ: Is that an aspect many younger musicians are ignoring?

JASON MARSALIS: Oh of course, absolutely. That is a lot of the problem with a lot of younger musicians today is that there is a lack of knowledge as far as jazz history is concerned across the board. I have to do more work on it myself, just learning drum solos and learning more drum vocabulary. You find musicians now who don’t know a lot of standard songs.

FJ: Why do you feel that is?

JASON MARSALIS: The reason that is, is because those standard songs were the popular songs of my father’s day, which is why it is that he and my mother, who does not play music, knows those songs better than I do. Those were the popular songs of their day, coming from those musicals. I learn part of this from playing with my father. A lot of the younger musicians don’t know a lot of those songs.

FJ: Is that detrimental to their progress overall as musicians?

JASON MARSALIS: It can be. You have to have some sort of historical background in order to really play the music. If not that, than definitely learn the vocabulary of the music and the history of the music. Even when learning the vocabulary of the music, eventually, you will have to learn standards. Those are the songs and tunes that those musicians play. Be it Louis Armstrong or Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, the songs that they were playing were all standards anyway.

FJ: Let’s touch on Los Hombres Calientes.

JASON MARSALIS: First off, I want to make that straight off the bat because there are a lot of misunderstanding that it is my band, which it really isn’t. It was a band that was put together by Irvin Mayfield. He was the one who put the band together. I remember he called me one day. It was like January of ’98 and he told me about this gig that he was going to do. When he told me about it, “I said that is great.” Bill Summers would have these percussion meetings every Saturday at his house and other percussionists would get together and play Cuban rhythms and I learned a lot from those meetings. When Irvin called me about that gig, I asked him if he had been to Bill’s house and he said, “No.” I said, “Well, that is something you need to go check out before you even do the gig.” He went over there and he was really the one that put the band together.

FJ: Let’s touch on the two volumes you recorded for Basin Street.

JASON MARSALIS: Well, I hated Volume One and I still do to be honest with you, Fred. The reason for that was because that record was done straight out of the band’s first gig. We did one gig and bam, we were recording. At the time, I thought it was a little rushed and I was like, “Hold on. We just got started. We can’t just start recording.” The way recorded it, a lot of the musicians we not comfortable. We did a lot of overdubbing more so than live playing. Also too, the sound wasn’t that great either, which I think had to do with the equipment that was being used. Also, the spirit of the band was not captured on Volume One. That is something that a lot of people did hear when they heard the band live and then heard the record. They would always comment on how the band was better live and how we needed to do a live record and I would say, “No, we just need to get better. That is all it is.” So when we did the second record, which is much better, the band had been playing for a long time and we were more prepared to do the second album. Also, another thing is that we explored more genres. The first record is mostly Cuban based. So I told him that for the next record, we need to expand on that. We need to have a reggae tune, some samba stuff, funk tunes, and expand beyond the Cuban sound.

FJ: And your own debut, Year of the Drummer.

JASON MARSALIS: There was still some experience that I still needed to gain in working in the studio, which comes through time. Other than that, I was comfortable in some aspects because I had done some studio work and so I was pretty prepared. As far as how the album came out, I thought it came out pretty good. There were still some things that needed to be worked on, such as sound production and so forth. That is something you learn over time.

FJ: Let’s talk about your latest, Music in Motion.

JASON MARSALIS: My new album is coming out tomorrow. That record is also better than Year of the Drummer as far as sound production and as far as the band is concerned. The band on the last record wasn’t quite as prepared as the one on the new one. The difference is we had a lot of chances to play it and we did a lot of gigs.

FJ: It is comprised entirely of your own compositions.

JASON MARSALIS: One of the advantages that I had is fortunately I have had brothers who have made a lot of records and they can do whatever they want. On Basin Street, I was able to do whatever I wanted. Mark, the owner of the label, trusted me and so I did do that. But I did want to go in and record original music.

FJ: You also produced the recording. What were some of the non-musical tick tacks you had to concern yourself with?

JASON MARSALIS: Well, I had to oversee the sound. What order the tunes went in. The artwork and so forth. The actual putting together of the CD.

FJ: Do you enjoy producing?

JASON MARSALIS: Yes, I do. I learned a bit about if, obviously from Delfeayo. I do think that as far as producing goes, there is still some things about the sound and technical things that I am still not as quite knowledgeable with. The engineer would run the board and I would guide him as to how I wanted it to sound.

FJ: What is the role of a good drummer?

JASON MARSALIS: The role of a drummer is to keep the groove. The drummer supports the band. This is the same thing whether it is jazz, rap, R&B, whatever. The drums is what supports the group. The drums is what drives everything. In jazz music, the drums can go beyond that role. In order to go beyond that, you have to understand it. You have to understand the original role. There are things that the drummer can do within that role that can change. Sometimes, there have been instances that drums can be really flexible with the time and as far as one, two, three, four and as far as the pulse is concerned. There are some people, particularly horn players who don’t like that. There are horn players out there who want you to keep everything the same. They just want something that is comfortable for them to solo over.

FJ: How would you describe New Orleans?

JASON MARSALIS: The music. I will give you one example, Fred. I was watching Boomerang in North Carolina, visiting some friends and there was a scene where Eddie Murphy is at a club and the Rebirth Brass Band was playing. I was like, “Rebirth, oh man, OK.” The people that were watching were like, “Who?” Rebirth is big in New Orleans, but they don’t know what I am talking about. The funny thing is, the next day, I was at a CD Superstore and one of the guys that worked there and said, “You have seen the movie Boomerang. What was that band?” I said, “Rebirth Brass Band. Their records are on Rounder Records.” That has happened again, with that same band. In New Orleans, they are just really big and that is how it is in New Orleans, period.

FJ: What is the coolest thing about being a Marsalis?

JASON MARSALIS: I never thought of that as meaning anything. To be honest, Fred, family is just family. That is all that is. And plus, there are people that identify things with “Marsalis,” that frankly, doesn’t make much sense and is a waste of time. Especially like philosophical views in music. This whole nonsense about being a purist musician and what not. Some people associate that with Marsalis and that is really stupid, but there are fools out there doing it. I remember when I was in college, I was listening to some fusion records, the real fusion not that Eighties trash, like Return to Forever and Weather Report. Some other college student, who was a jerk to be honest with you, he says, “Yeah, man, it is good to see that you are into fusion.” I asked him why that was and why that was an issue. He said, “You are from a purist family.” I was like, “What with people like Branford? He is a purist?” There are these views that people associate with Marsalis and family. That is really just a waste of time. The family is full of individuals.

Rhythm In Every Guise

by David A. Orthmann
All About Jazz
April 4, 2003

At the age of 26, when most players are still absorbing the music’s vast lexicon and beginning the lengthy process of finding their own identity, Jason Marsalis is well on his way to becoming an exceptional jazz drummer. Recordings made over the past several years reveal a staggering array of technical skills and resources that are invariably applied to purely musical ends. From the press rolls of Baby Dodds, to Max Roach’s four-limbed independence, to the metric modulations of Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, Marsalis has mastered the rhythms of the jazz tradition. He handles the slowest and swiftest of tempos (and everything in between) with ease, plays out-of-tempo interludes gracefully, and integrates funk, Latin, and Afro-Cuban beats into his overall palette. Marsalis’ rhythmic variety is matched by the diverse timbres he coaxes from a drum set. Utilizing combinations of sticks, brushes, and mallets (and sometimes even his bare hands), he strikes rims, the shells of his drums, as well as drumheads and cymbals.

Spare and to the point, Marsalis’ playing on the head of Tony Vacca’s ‘Shoe Suede Blues’ (Tony Vacca, Three Point Landing’s Chicago, New Orleans, Phoenix, Half Note Records) is a very effective piece of small band drumming. Entering five measures into bassist Roland Guerin’s introduction, he starts off by keeping time on partially closed hi-hat cymbals and making the occasional, crisp-sounding stroke to the snare. These high pitched sounds make a fine contrast to the bass, and create a kind of swaying motion in relation to the direct movement of Guerin’s walking line. A stick shot announces the arrival of the rest of the band (Vacca’s alto saxophone, the trumpet of Irvin Mayfield, and Peter Martin’s piano), and for the next 12 bars Marsalis augments the hi-hat with snare drum accents (including a nifty three-stroke fill that’s a bit louder than everything else), and hits to the bass drum that are more felt then heard. These additional elements complement the melody and create a slightly agitated sense of movement. The payoff comes when he switches from the hit-hat to the ride cymbal just as the band begins to repeat the melody. Without increasing volume or introducing other new patterns, Marsalis’ straight quarter notes immediately make the music tighter and more focused.

‘Death March Of Our Time’ (Jason Marsalis, The Year Of The Drummer, Basin Street Records) showcases the drummer’s ability to hold a band together and make interesting contributions of his own at a deliberate tempo. During four solos he varies rhythms, textures, and dynamics. In unison with the bass and piano behind trumpeter Antonio Gambrell’s somber turn, Marsalis plays the snare (with snares off) and the bass drum at a low volume on beats one through three, then stays silent on the fourth beat. After an extended closed roll brings the band out of the doldrums, he uses the whole drum set in support of Derek Douget’s keening alto saxophone. Even though Marsalis keeps straight time with a minimum of embellishment, the listener is drawn to the sound of each drum and cymbal. Once again bringing down the dynamic level, his ride cymbal clears a path for Jonathan Lefcoski’s piano. Then returning to the same rhythmic motif as the first solo chorus, in support of bassist Jason Stewart, Marsalis plays a light stick shot and the bass drum simultaneously, but instead of leaving the last beat blank like before, he employs the foot pedal to make a slight, nearly inaudible clicking sound with the hi-hat.

The unconventional fours that Marsalis trades with the band on the same track are as satisfying as any extended drum solo. He confounds the expectation that drummers must use their limited time in the spotlight to show off sticking technique and crowd-pleasing licks. With one exception (a busy, seemingly free form melange of patterns) he executes relatively uncomplicated rhythms that allow each stroke to hang in the air so the overtones can be heard clearly and distinctly. Employing silence as much as the components of his drum set, Marsalis’ bare bones figures meander across bar lines; it’s easy to get lost in them (again, the tempo is very slow) and surprised when the band returns.

The introduction to his composition ‘There’s A Thing Called Rhythm’ (Jason Marsalis, Music In Motion, Basin Street Records) is an excellent example of Marsalis’ ability to direct the music from his drum kit in resourceful ways. His sticking on the hi-hat and ride cymbal serves as connective tissue between a series of jolting, three-chord (and one five-chord) figures played by the piano (Jonathan Lefcoski), bass (Peter Harris), and supported by the drums. Each of Marsalis’ brief, out-of-tempo interludes feature variations of single stroke rolls to a closed hi-hat that vary in texture as he goes along by means of a slight raising of the foot pedal. He concludes these phases with two or three hissing hits to the partially opened hi-hat, immediately followed by three taps to the bell of the ride cymbal which cue and establish the tempo by which the piano and bass enter. Moreover, each time Marsalis uses this maneuver he intentionally alters the tempo.

Some of Marsalis’ most assertive playing occurs in the freewheeling, piano-less format of the track ‘Who?’ (John Ellis, Roots, Branches & Leaves, Fresh Sound New Talent). During the first chorus of tenor saxophonist John Ellis’ solo, he juxtaposes various components of the drum set against the relatively steady pulse of the ride cymbal. After an initial, somewhat uneventful four measures, Marsalis opens up and keeps coming at Ellis with a dense and intensely swinging barrage of asymmetrical beats. Single hits to the bass drum are deftly placed under snapping, irregular snare drum accents; light cymbal crashes, rim shots, single strokes to tom toms, and the occasional thwack to a partially opened hi-hat rapidly go by; and a couple of quicksilver, three-note fills on the snare stand out when he inserts them in brief gaps left by Ellis. The multiplicity of rhythms plus subtle changes in dynamics and sticking create a climate of boundless motion; yet despite Marsalis’ liveliness he stays in synch with bassist Roland Guerin’s walking foundation, and constantly responds to changes in Ellis’ narrative.

Marsalis’ extended solo at the conclusion of ‘I-Witness’ (Roland Guerin, You Don’t Have To See It To Believe It, Half Note Records) is framed by a repetitive, four-bar riff played in unison by the rest of the band. The antithesis of a bunch of static, well-practiced licks, he fashions a brilliant improvisation out of wildly fluctuating rhythms that rub up against the fixed pattern from different angles. For a minute and forty-five seconds, the ever-inventive Marsalis never repeats himself. Although it’s impossible to divide the performance into discrete segments, some of the highlights include a stomping bass drum that plows across the beat, to which he adds another, semi-independent layer to the tom toms; figures to the snare drum and tom toms which arrogantly dance around the riff as if to imply that it’s ponderous or slow-footed; and, cued by some funky, deviant chords by pianist Peter Martin, Marsalis’ 4 and 5 stroke lines fit the riff perfectly and swing in a traditional manner.