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.
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.