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.
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.
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.
If you think the Marsalis family line ended with trumpeter Wynton and saxophonist Branford, you’re wrong because vibe play Jason Marsalis – the youngest sibling – has just released his second Vibes Quartet recording, The 21st Century Trad Band, on Basin Street Records. It’s the follow up to 2013’s In a World of Mallets, which made it to number 1 on the JazzWeek radio charts. This new effort continues the collaboration between Marsalis and his band, which includes Will Goble on bass, Austin Johnson on piano and David Potter at the drums.
The album includes tracks like “Offbeat Personality,” which features a complex arrangement that mixes hard-swinging with melodic segments, as well as a few unexpected turn-arounds and a quiet intro. “The Man with Two Left Feet,” on the other hand, matches traditional jazz elements with a more contemporary feel. It shows what happens when a band is able to log many miles and years together prior to recording together.
Marsalis incorporates a wide variety of instruments on this release, including marimba, glockenspiel, tubular bells (remember The Exorcist theme?), vibraphone and xylophone. One track is even a bit of an off-kilter blues workout called “Discipline Meets the Offbeat One.”
This album once again includes compositions from Marsalis’ band mates, but also features some works by fellow New Orleans musicians. For instance, Cliff Hines’s “Interzone” is included, as is Jason Weaver’s “Blues for Now.” Both men are graduates of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Marsalis also gets a little social/political on one track, “BP Shakedown,” which is obviously inspired by the BP oil spill. A further sonic exploration is “Nights in Brooklyn,” which takes on film noire sounds.
Marsalis has already received high praise from other respected musicians. Banjoist Bela Fleck, for example, noted Marsalis’ “brilliant ideas that sound as if he’s played them his whole life, but are really coming off the top of his head.”
Although trumpeter Wynton is the most famous member of the family, his father, Ellis, is also a respected play. Brother Delfeayo Marasalis is a trombone player and producer. Wynton is a teacher and music educator, in addition to a composer and player. Anybody that’s ever seen him perform live has experienced his teaching skills — he loves to talk jazz history. He is also Artistic Director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Over the years, he’s won nine Grammys – in both jazz and classical music. In fact, one of his recordings was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, the first of its kind. Now, Jason is making a bold entry into this amazing family tradition.
The Marsalis’s are practically the royal family of the New Orleans jazz world, with brothers Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and the youngest, James, a prodigal drummer. Now, James Marsalis is carrying the torch with his Vibes Quartet on a new record entitled The 21st Century Trad Band (Trad Jazz is a traditional, ragtime style of jazz). Marsalis hands the drumsticks to Dave Potter, as he takes on the unique and frenetic vibraphones alongside bandmates Austin Johnson (piano) and Will Goble (bass). Songs like “Blues for Now” is mellow and chilled out, with an underlying chaos and ominous tone, while “Discipline Meets the Offbeat One” has a dreamy, manic, totally insane vibraphone solo that’s so layered and rich, it will make you want to just listen with your eyes closed so there are no distractions.
Certainly, if you know anything about anything about jazz — hell, about music over the past 50-60 years or so — you know that the Marsalis family have made a tremendous impact on jazz and on music. Patriarch, Ellis Marsalis is a legendary pianist and educator; Branford Marsalis is a world-renowned saxophonist who has not only played alongside Sting, but has long been known as a forward-thinking and brash giant of contemporary jazz; Wynton Marsalis has made a name for himself for his attempts at preserving and honoring jazz’s tremendous history; Delfeayo Marsalis is a renowned trumpeter; and the youngest of the clan, Jason Marsalis has toured with Bela Fleck and pianist Marcus Roberts. (Interestingly, if you consider how both Wynton and Bradford Marsalis come off in interviews and in public appearances, you’d think that Wynton was the eldest of the the incredibly talented family — wrong. It’s actually Bradford. You can use that bit in a trivia night, if it comes up.)
With the release of Jason Marsalis’s third album In a World of Mallets the youngest of the Marsalis clan returned to his role as composer and bandleader — and it served as the debut of the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet, featuring Will Goble (bass), Austin Johnson (piano) and David Potter (drums). And what made that album interesting was that the album’s material was comprised of incredibly complex but playfully witty compositions which managed to twist, turn, dart, flit about and play with pauses, time signature changes and key changes in ways that put a modern twist on classic jazz.
Basin Street Records will be releasing the second Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet album, The 21st Century Trad Band on October 27, and with the release of the album’s first single, album title track, “The 21st Century Trad Band,” the album will continue to cement Marsalis’s reputation for playfully witty compositions that manage to be dense, complex and yet incredibly accessible. At one point, you’ll hear Marsalis playing the melody for “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In” for a few bars — right in the middle of the song that really swings and bobs with a sweet, amiable charm.