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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.

Roberts performs dizzying jazz tribute to Jelly Roll Morton

Somewhere out there, Jelly Roll Morton is smiling

by Mark Hinson
Tallahasee Democrat
February 18, 2013

Everything old really is new again.

Jazz piano great Marcus Roberts started his tribute to New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton on Sunday night at Seven Days of Opening Nights with introductory remarks that also served as fair warning to what was about to happen on the stage.

Marcus Roberts performing at the Ruby Diamond Concert Hall in Tallahassee“When people think of Jelly Roll Morton, they think, ‘old,’ ” Roberts said as he got comfortable at his grand piano. “He is not old. We are not going to let that happen. His music is new. Especially if you have never heard it.”

During the first half of the concert, The Marcus Roberts Trio and a seven-piece horn section tore through new arrangements of Morton tunes such as “Doctor Jazz” and “The Pearls” with an enthusiastic precision that was, at times, jaw-dropping.

The highlight of the first half was “New Orleans Bump,” which featured a new arrangement by Roberts’ trumpet player Alphonso Horne (yes, horn is in his last name). The song may have been written in the Roaring Twenties but it sounded fresh and new as Horne pumped it full of strutting swagger. The arrangement also left plenty of room for Roberts to take off on a wild improvisation that was so full of charging rhythms and counter-rhythms that it could cause dizziness.

Remember the name Horne, who studied jazz at Florida State College of Music with Roberts as one of his professors. Horne has a big future in front of him.

The crowd of 710 in Ruby Diamond Concert Hall let out whoops and “wows” throughout the evening, whether it was for trills on the clarinet or a mind-bending improv from Roberts that sounded like boogie-woogie from another planet. Anyone expecting a stodgy museum piece or dry recreation of a Dixieland band was sadly mistaken.

Marcus Roberts performing at the Ruby Diamond Concert Hall in TallahasseeThe band lineup included Jason Marsalis on drums, Rodney Jordan on bass, Tim Blackman Jr. on trumpet, Jeremiah St. John on trombone, Joe Goldberg on clarinet, Tissa Khosla on baritone, Ricardo Pascal on saxophone and Stephen Riley on tenor saxophone. The concert had been billed as an octet but, hey, who cares if you add a few more players when they are this good?

Morton, who got his start playing in the brothels in his hometown of New Orleans, was a flamboyant figure who claimed he invented jazz. That may or may not be true, but he certainly was the first musician to sit down and notate the rambunctious new music of the 20th century. He also rubbed a lot of the other musicians the wrong way with his bragging and his flash (he had a diamond tooth), so that is probably why he was not well remembered when he died in near-poverty in the early ’40s.

While the party-hearty Morton may not have made it to the Pearly Gates after his death, he was definitely smiling his diamond-tooth smile somewhere in the great beyond on Sunday night.

Roberts, who turns 50 this year, is no stranger to the Seven Days. He and his group put on a memorable show with jazz singer Dianne Reeves a few years ago. Anyone who saw his reinvention of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at Seven Days probably wondered how he could top that performance.

He just did.

The Seven Days of Opening Nights continues today with a screening of a film that was hand-picked by Tribeca Film Festival honcho Geoffrey Gilmore. The title is being withheld until showtime at 8 p.m. It is sold out.

Lots of New Jazz: Some Eclectic, Some Restrained, Some Unrestricted

by Ben Ratliff
New York Times
March 23, 2008

“Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” the new record by the saxophonist John Ellis and his band Double-Wide, is a New York-New Orleans collection of jazz: something intrinsically promising and, in this case, worth a listen. Rhythmically it has that New Orleans duality of being full of funk and lighter than air. Jason Marsalis, a New Orleanian, plays tidy backbeats, with brilliantly arranged little solos; replacing the thump of the bass is the cool puffing of the sousaphone, from Matt Perrine, who’s become known around New Orleans in the band Bonerama. Gary Versace of New York plays Hammond organ and a little accordion. For his part Mr. Ellis is a hybrid. He grew up in North Carolina, now lives in New York, but he spent four years working in New Orleans. He wrote all the warm, sweet, humorous songs here and plays with an easy flow but careful control over his tone; the arrangements are tamped down around the edges, a severely edited kind of party music.

Ellis and Jason Marsalis Talk Back

Alex Rawls talks to Ellis and Jason Marsalis about An Open Letter to Thelonious, teaching and traditional jazz. “When you deal with language to describe music, you’ve got a problem,” Ellis says. “I remember talking to a guy who was a player, and he said, ‘I’m really into traditional jazz,’ and he started rhyming off Charlie Parker, Monk, and all these guys.”

by Alex Rawls
offBeat Magazine
April 2008

While we’re talking, Ellis Marsalis takes two calls and ignores another. Spring in New Orleans is a musician’s busiest time, and not only is Marsalis playing the French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest, but he’s promoting his new album, An Open Letter to Thelonious (ELM). He and Irvin Mayfield also released Love Songs, Ballads and Standards (Basin Street), and today he’s at NOCCA to teach a master class to his son Jason’s students.

An Open Letter to Thelonious is a family affair. Jason plays in Ellis’ quartet, and both contributed liner notes. Ellis recalls the one missed opportunity he had to meet Monk, while Jason analyzes Monk’s sense of rhythm, dubbing him “the first unofficial funk musician.”

We’re in NOCCA’s performance hall, and Jason was talking about his efforts to teach his students to play traditional jazz just before the recorder started. Ellis is talking about his efforts to document traditional jazz that emerged from playing it with a good band.

Ellis: I started to write down all the things we played, each song. I did it over three nights, so I had a pretty good list. I thought about writing out more than a lead sheet, actually the piano accompaniment; now I’m trying to make myself get started on this project. [laughs]

Part of what Jason is talking about is the inability of those who find themselves in a teaching position to get prepared music to present to students from that idiom. The traditional jazz idiom has a lot of music, and it’s structured in such a way that all of the elements of western music are in it—the key signatures, the modulations, the tempo. Now that I’m confessing that [gesturing at the recorder], I’ve got to do it. I don’t think something like that could be done anywhere but New Orleans.

This goes to something I’ve been thinking about for a while—what does it mean to be traditional? How do you best honor a tradition? Does a player have to play in the idiom, or is it in the composition? How is tradition manifested?

Ellis MarsalisEllis: First of all, when you deal with language to describe music, you’ve got a problem. I remember talking to a guy who was a player, and he said, “I’m really into traditional jazz,” and he started rhyming off Charlie Parker, Monk, and all these guys. It’s not his fault if he’s from Detroit or Chicago or L.A. The documentation isn’t set in such a way so that it will allow him to get a complete perspective.

When you think of European art music, the documentation by the various composers over 300, 400 years helps to understand some of that, at least from the 15th Century on. One thing that may be missing is a certain relationship that those composers had to the gypsies. You found references to dances—Hungarian Dance, number this or that or the other. Talk about Rodney Dangerfield, they don’t get no respect! America is a little too young to have that kind of thing happen. If enough of us can start trying to make certain kinds of documentation…

One of the things that was lost in certain kinds of European music—I don’t know how much time after Beethoven—was the ability to improvise. There are stories about when Czerny, who was a student of his, would be turning pages for him and there would be no notes on the page. He hadn’t even written it down. That improvisational process, eventually, they lost.

If it’s still in Europe, maybe it’s over there, but people who learn to play that music here, they go to the conservatory and improvisation isn’t even part of that. I think that as a part of American history, this is a necessary cog in the wheel. I’ve been telling Jason for years, “Whatever you do, write it down. Make some notes.”

I’ve seen some situations where some of the jazz stars have begun to be used in institutions to come in and do workshops. I look at some of them and say, “I don’t want them anywhere near my students.” They play well, but you have to do a certain amount of reflective thinking or what you end up doing is teaching in the abstract, which is why students can’t read, or why they can’t do math.

There are some things we have to do to assist in that process.

Thankfully, there are enough recordings of the earlier music by some of the top players so that can be a great reference point.

I would have to think that over the years, you’ve heard people play traditional jazz and get it wrong.

Ellis: I was one of them. I stood in the driveway with Albert “Papa” French, who played with “Papa” Celestin, and had his own band with his sons, Bob and John. Papa French, said, “Some of you young guys need to play this music because we’re about to lose it.” I said, “Yeah, man. You’re right.”

In my mind, I was thinking, “I don’t want to play that old stuff.” That degree of ignorance was profound with me. Eventually, I’m playing with the Storyville Jazz Band, which is Bob French’s group, at Crazy Shirley’s on St. Peter and Bourbon in the early 1970s—so I wasn’t a spring chicken. I started playing a stride solo and everybody in the band started to laugh. I didn’t know why they were laughing because I was serious. I wasn’t trying to caricature the music. I tried it again and got the same response.

I started to do some research. I went and really listened to Jelly Roll and Willie “the Lion” Smith. I realized these guys have ideas peculiar to this style of music. If you’re going to play this, you’ve got to be involved with those ideas—the rhythm of the ideas, the melody, and all of that. I started working on that. The next time I played a stride solo, I didn’t get the same response, and I realized I was on the right track.

Right around the corner from Crazy Shirley’s was Preservation Hall, and Willie Humphrey and Percy and them would come by on the way to work. Some of those old guys came in one night while I was playing one of those solos, and the guy looks and goes, “Mmmm hmmm, okay,” and I knew just from that gesture that I was on the right track.

Let’s jump forward to the Monk record. I’m always fascinated when a musician approaches another musician’s work. How do you decide which pieces to do?

Ellis: Well in this particular case, Jason was sort of the brains behind most of that. The idea was to approach Monk’s music with a certain kind of groove without tarnishing what Monk had put there. I went through a similar thing with Marcus Roberts, which was a dual-piano thing. We did one or two pieces of Thelonious Monk, and Marcus would say that we have to be very careful that we don’t superimpose our stuff on top of Monk.

We have been talking about doing a Monk record for a long time. Monk’s music is not easy to play and the degree of difficulty is less in technical facility and more in conceptualization of where he was coming from. A lot of what you have to listen to determines the results of what you play.

Jason MarsalisJason: The best description that I read of that was from Orrin Keepnews—and this really put a lot of perspective for me on Monk’s music—he said, “You know, it’s kind of like when you are at a jam session and musicians start playing ‘Blue Monk.’ They solo for about 20 minutes, then they look around and say, ‘What’s the big deal about Monk?'”

There is an essence of Monk’s music in terms of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic formation that should not be taken for granted. It’s easy to take a Monk tune and play over it, but it’s different when you try to play the music and still have the essence of what he was about still there. That’s the challenge when trying to play his music.

The rhythm element is what drew me to Monk first. How he phrased lines. Even inside the phrases, exactly where the notes fell always felt so personal and idiosyncratic.

Jason: He was definitely a master at using rhythm and space. I noticed with his own tunes just how strong the rhythm would be in those melodies.

Who was responsible for the selection of the pieces?

Jason: It was a combination of both. My father brought up the idea of doing a Monk record a while back. I believe what got the ball rolling was when we played this one quartet performance with “Epistrophy.” We played it in a way that was arranged slightly, very subtly. I liked the way it went, and I started thinking maybe we should pursue this album. There were some things that I picked and some things that my father picked.

Was there anything you decided was too him to do, or requires us to move too far, or just did not want to do?

Ellis: Nothing that I can think of. I think what we did on that CD is a pretty fair representation of Monk, in a wider sense. We did “Crepuscule with Nellie”—I wouldn’t even know how to solo off of that. I did decide to do “‘Round Midnight,” but I decided to do that as a piano solo. I messed with that tune and I even thought of forming a string quartet of that tune a long time ago, and I did not get too far.

I think Jason mentioned it in the liner notes about the grooves. There is a story going around about Monk—a guy, a drummer I think, and he was kind of new to Monk’s music. He asked Monk, “What do you want me to do?” Monk said, “Swing.” The guy said, “I understand that, but after that, what then?” “Swing some more.”

So you had the idea of applying specific grooves to Monk?

Jason: The only tune on there, honestly, that I really wanted to do was a tune called “Teo.” A few years ago I heard a recording of this tune on Live at the It Club, and I was first interested in it because I never heard it. No one ever plays it. Monk has written hundreds of tunes and there are a lot of tunes that have slipped through the cracks and are not played very much. I checked it out and I think, okay this isn’t bad, but after eight bars I started hearing a funk groove. So when we decided to do the record, I said this is one tune we have to do.

I recently rehearsed that with some students from here, and I think that my description may have confused the drummer a little bit. I said, “Think Monk and the Roots’ drummer Questlove and the stuff he does with DeAngelo.” I think that threw him off, but really, rhythmically you can do that with a lot of Monk’s tunes.

You talked about playing Monk with Marcus Roberts; he said we have to be careful not to put ourselves all over this. Isn’t part of the business of playing it to find how you interact with that person’s work?

Ellis: Yeah, but I think what Marcus is saying when in reference to the term “superimposed” is that, like I’ve heard this one pianist who did a Bud Powell tune called “Hallucinations.” When the solo came, there was no harmonic reference to “Hallucinations” at all. It was all about whoever this pianist was and his stuff. You can make an argument for that saying that’s what jazz does, and it’s true, but if you approach what you’re doing philosophically, you try and do the best that you can with the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm. Those three components.

I remember once Tommy Flanagan told me something. I was in Europe at one of those festivals, and it always leaves you wanting to play. You go over there, you do 45 minutes then you’re done. There was a space under the hotel in which there was a piano against the wall, and I went over to the piano because I felt like playing more than the 45 minutes. I started playing “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” just fooling around with it. When I finished, I saw Tommy was sitting over there against the wall, and I got up to go and speak to him. As I got close to him, he said, “You forgot the verse.” I don’t think I even knew there was a verse, so I went home and got the music and there was the verse. I recorded it again with the verse.

I think there is a certain amount of specificity that is necessary from where I am coming from philosophically. Coltrane was guilty of this all the time; he didn’t care much about the melody. He played it however it came out. You owe the composer of the tune, whether it’s Richard Rogers or Jobim. If you are going to play the melody, play the melody. Then when you get ready to solo, that’s on you.

The politics of Jazz

by Bill DeYoung
Connect Savannah
August 31, 2010

Jason Marsalis in Connect SavannahIn New Orleans music circles, if your last name is Marsalis (or, for that matter, Neville) you have a reputation to live up to.

Jason Marsalis is well aware that his family name carries certain expectations. The youngest of Ellis and Delores Ferdinand Marsalis’ six sons, the spotlight swung to him when he began playing jazz professionally at the age of 12. He’s 33 now, and clear of the shadow of his famous dad – and of his brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Branford.

He’s an expressive, innovative drummer, and composer, and a restlessly creative musician, and on Sunday he’ll introduce a new quintet at a concert inside the Mansion on Forsyth Park. With this group, Marsalis plays the vibraphone.

(The Jason Marsalis Quintet also has a gig Friday and Saturday nights at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head.)

Recently, heads turned and eyes bugged when Marsalis made a tongue–in–cheek “public service announcement,” in the form of an online video, in which he railed against “Jazz Nerds International,” young musicians who are into pushing the boundaries of jazz for what he believes are all the wrong reasons.

Your mantra has always been “jazz has got to keep moving forward.” What do you mean?

Jason Marsalis: If anything, there are probably those who are accusing me of trying to move it backwards right now!

I’ve caused a lot of buzz lately in the jazz world because of this Internet video. The thing about it is, the music is always going to move forward. It may not be in mainstream culture right now, but it’s always going to move forward, and there’s always going to be people bringing in other ideas. So it’s going to happen whether we want it to or not.

The video has to do with music students who reduce the music of jazz to an intellectual exercise. And they’re only attracted to the abstract elements of the music. That’s all it is.

For example, if a nerd was to hear the music of James Brown, their response would probably be “Oh, this has two chords. So what?” They’re not gonna get that there’s a strong groove, and that there’s people dancing to it. All they want to hear is the complex elements while ignoring the simple elements.

There’s music students like that all the time.

That’s the opposite of what music is, don’t you think? It’s supposed to make you feel.

Jason Marsalis: Exactly. My whole point is that there’s a lot of things that jazz music can do, and will do. Whether it has to do with swingin’ out, or a groove, or a ballad, or mellow or angry, there’s a lot of emotions that the music has. My view is that all of those moods should be explored.

But the nerd tends to look at one thing: How can we play as abstract and innovative as possible, and we’re not interested in anything else. Because it’s already been done, and we need to move on as quick as possible.

Why did you start playing vibes? You’ve described the instrument as “melodic percussion” – was it a logical step from the drums?

Jason Marsalis: I wanted to do it because there was a lot with vibes that hadn’t been said. There’s a lot that has been contributed, but there’s much more to be done. There haven’t been as many jazz vibraphonists as there have been jazz trumpet players, or jazz saxophonists, or jazz pianists.

There’s other possibilities with that instrument that you cannot explore on drums. Now I will say that on drums, there’s vocabulary that can be contributed in terms of rhythm, and in terms of space – which not a lot of drummers are really addressing.

But with vibes, there’s a lot that you can do with a melody that you can’t do with drums. A lot of the songs that I write for my vibes group, it’s different from the music I write if I’m playing drums leading a group. Because I have the melody, and I have to be sure I’m playing the melody correctly. With drums, that isn’t the case.

Why do you think some people find a direct line to music, as opposed to, say, dreaming of becoming a doctor or some other career?

Jason Marsalis: The stories I’ve heard are that I was into music as a kid, I mean age 3. According to my parents, I was just loving music as a toddler.

As I grew up, my brothers were making records – and I actually liked those records – and after a while I started to love the drums. And I wanted to play the drums.

I was around it a lot, but I believed it and I wanted to contribute something to it.

And being in the city of New Orleans, there’s a lot of music and culture that isn’t available in other places. In defense of those jazz nerds, they don’t get a lot of access to jazz as a fun music; jazz as a way to make people dance.

You had a family name to live up to. Did your parents ever say “Aw, you’re just the little brother”?

Jason Marsalis: Not in the music sense. Now, in the life sense, that’s a little bit of a different story!

I think it’s because I played a rhythm section instrument. So if anything, that was seen as being different from Wynton and Branford. From what I was told.

That’s one. Two, I had the belief and talent in music at a very early age.

Are you a ‘jazz nerd’? Jason Marsalis revisits and clarifies the term

by Jason Marsalis
Los Angeles Times
June 15, 2010

Jason Marsalis in the Los Angeles TimesIn the wake of causing a minor firestorm in the online jazz community last month with a playful video decrying the influence of “jazz nerds,” drummer Jason Marsalis e-mailed me a clarification this morning that both expands on the definition, shares his inspiration for the video and offers further talking points that amount to a calling for a truce in the so-called Jazz Wars.

As a few commenters on the post argued, the crux of Marsalis’ issue with so-called jazz nerds isn’t necessarily the use of complicated structure, multi-genre influences or odd meter (citing his own work with adventurous young saxophonist John Ellis as an example, a point also made by Pop and Hiss commenter nash61ce). In one part of a four-page statement, Marsalis argues that his point was a question of adding those elements without a working knowledge of jazz’s rich history and instead opting for complexity for complexity’s sake in composition.
“[A jazz nerd, or JNA for short] will hear groups lead by Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter and will marvel at the complex musical structure but ignore the historical substance behind their music. JNA saxophonists will listen to and worship the music of Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, and other modern players but ignore the musicians that have influenced their music such as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Warne Marsh, and Sonny Rollins.

JNA will hear the music of James Brown and say that it’s no big deal because it only has two chords. JNA looks down on blues as ‘simple’ while wanting to play endless non-melodic eighth and sixteenth notes over ‘All the Things You Are’ in 7/4 straight feel. By the way, a slow blues is boring. Better yet, swing is actually uninteresting and straight feel is actually more ‘challenging’ and ‘exciting.’ Instead of embracing both, the JNA worships one while ridiculing the other. Speaking of that, 4/4 is ‘old’ while 9/8, on the other hand, is ‘new.’ A basic drum groove is boring unless you fill it with lots of notes. To the JNA, that’s modern music. So to recapitulate, JNA reduces music to as many complex notes as possible while ignoring the simple elements and history behind the notes. This kind of music will have audience members sitting on their hands suffering boredom.”
Interestingly, Marsalis goes on to argue against what he believes is another troubling trend in modern jazz,  “innovation propaganda.” Couched in part as a defense of the “young lions” counter-revolution of the 1980s that celebrated jazz of the 1950s and ’60s (a movement vigorously championed by his family), Marsalis writes, “Starting from 2000 up to now, the majority of today’s music started to reference rock, hip-hop, pop, R&B, and world music. That’s great except there’s a catch. Almost NO music before 1990 is referenced in the majority of music played today.”

While the idea that the “majority” of contemporary jazz disregards Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and the entirety of the jazz firmament sounds like a stretch, Marsalis’ overall tone with regard to the modern versus  “neoclassicist” “jazz wars” is one that advocates for inclusion from both sides.
“Here’s the reality about music. Genres are neutral, all music is old and music is information. The 20th century has produced lots of music. Rather than dividing it up with categories like ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ or ‘old’ and ‘new,’ it should be viewed as a century worth of information.There’s information in Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Weather Report, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Genesis, Nirvana, Common, John Legend just to name a few. Hundreds upon thousands of artists in numerous genres were left out, but the point is this music is all available for any musician to employ, or be employed rather.

There are those that complain of narrowing music through categories. My complaint is about narrowing music through dates. There’s information that can be incorporated in music from 1900 to 2000 in today’s context. Jazz is an open architecture that includes everything from genres to history.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself, actually. Ultimately, as one who is a strong advocate for the first of the “innovation kool-aid” principles that Marsalis later lists in his statement — “Jazz has to move forward into the future” (and I’d wager that Marsalis values that point as well) — the question of whether a so-called traditionalist or so-called modernist perspective is the best way to move jazz into the future isn’t a question at all. All sides of the music, every influence, artistic whim and sonic preference are welcome and worthy of consideration. That sort of freedom is what keeps jazz so vital in the first place.

There’s plenty of food for thought throughout Marsalis’ statement — give it a read and weigh in with your thoughts. He ends the piece by writing, “I’m glad we are having this conversation,” and I have to agree.

— Chris Barton

The Definition of a Jazz Nerd

I’ve been lucky to grow up as a privileged musician. I’ve been surrounded by a considerable amount of information and various influences from different genres of music. As a high school and college student, jazz students I knew were very knowledgeable about music and hungry for even more. Then in the early 2000s, something happened. While performing with some of the new jazz students relocating to the New Orleans area, I noticed something missing in their music. As I became familiar with their compositions and solo performances, my suspicions were confirmed; while their music was often complex with a different mood, it was unfortunately lacking in knowledge of the jazz tradition.

These musicians did not take sufficient time to investigate jazz before 1990, nor did they have a belief in that music. I then realized that these musicians did not have many opportunities to play outside of the classroom situation. Therefore, playing jazz for an audience was not part of their musical experience. As I traveled the country, I began seeing this as a trend. Jazz students would play an abundance of notes in an abstract manner without an understanding of basic melodic content.

During this time, I overheard a musician describe hearing music in which musicians played notes and patterns over complex chord changes as “nerd music”. That term struck a chord with me because that was the same thing I was hearing from college students, and some professional musicians, around the country. At that moment I realized the trend that was happening with jazz music and I coined the phrase “JNA,” the Jazz Nerds of America.

Jason Marsalis performing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage FestivalAs I traveled to Europe and Canada, I discovered common attitudes were pertinent to my observations. Jazz musicians in both countries said the same thing is happening with music students in their respective regions. At this point I’m getting notoriously disturbed about the new music I’ve been hearing. Finally, in a conversation with my father, he told me of a set he attended at a New York jazz club and heard music that I would describe as being played by JNA members. He noticed that the band members had their heads buried in the music and made no eye contact with the audience. He also observed a very attentive audience working hard to like what they were hearing. Basically, instead of enjoying the music, they were expending energy in an attempt to connect with what was being played.

At this point I decided, as a bandleader, to warn the jazz audience about the JNA. When I would tell my story, it would be part musician/part raving street preacher to elicit laughs from the audience. I would advise them to run away from “nerd music” as fast as they can. One night in Toronto, I told my JNA story to the audience and Keita Hopkinson, someone who was helping put together the show, wanted to film my rant on his iPhone. I agreed and he posted it on YouTube.

I recently received a phone call from band mate and pianist Marcus Roberts and he mentioned that he  received an e-mail about my “jazz nerd” video and that it was getting a lot of attention over the Internet. I did a Google search on Jazz Nerd International and lots of entries appeared. It was humorous that JNA was getting this much attention. The articles were also interesting reads. The only troublesome aspect was that my views were misconstrued and misdirected into another conversation contrary to what the video was about. Some of the blame falls on me because a lot of the musical examples presented in the video were done in a vague fashion. This is why I have decided to write an essay to explain what my problem with the “jazz nerd” is all about.

Let’s define a jazz nerd. A jazz nerd, or JNA for short, is a jazz student who reduces all music to notes and concepts only. JNA worships complexity while ridiculing simplicity. JNA will hear groups lead by Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter and will marvel at the complex musical structure but ignore the historical substance behind their music. JNA saxophonists will listen to and worship the music of Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, and other modern players but ignore the musicians that have influenced their music such as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Warne Marsh, and Sonny Rollins. JNA will hear the music of James Brown and say that it’s no big deal because it only has two chords. JNA looks down on blues as “simple” while wanting to play endless non-melodic eighth and sixteenth notes over “All the Things You Are” in 7/4 straight feel. By the way, a slow blues is boring. Better yet, swing is actually uninteresting and straight feel is actually more “challenging” and “exciting.” Instead of embracing both, the JNA worships one while ridiculing the other. Speaking of that, 4/4 is “old” while 9/8, on the other hand, is “new.” A basic drum groove is boring unless you fill it with lots of notes. To the JNA, that’s modern music. So to recapitulate, JNA reduces music to as many complex notes as possible while ignoring the simple elements and history behind the notes. This kind of music will have audience members sitting on their hands suffering boredom.

Now, I must make a brief statement about odd meters. In the infamous video, it seemed as though I was attacking odd meters. Anyone that knows my music would rightfully label that hypocrisy. It isn’t the time signatures I was attacking but rather the highly indifferent approach JNA would employ in the name of creating music. They play all odd meters the same way, straight and medium-to-fast. They’re not interested in bringing a variety of grooves and mood to odd meters. Furthermore, a jazz nerd will have music that will modulate from 5/4 to 9/8 to 7/4 in a matter of measures while playing a barrage of notes that make no sense. Therefore, as an audience member you actually can’t tell what the band is playing since there’s no clarity of chord movement or rhythm. This approach to odd meters can work, as exemplified by tenor saxophonist John Ellis’ composition “Bonus Round,” but cluttering the space doesn’t help the music. The music student has fun but the audience has nothing with which to connect and therefore is sitting on their hands, again.

As far as today’s music is concerned, I do have a problem with another trend that isn’t exclusive to the JNA, but it affects jazz music, and JNA members usually believe in it. It’s what I call “innovation propaganda.” It is rooted in the fact that starting in the 1980s and through the ’90s, there were jazz musicians interested in the history of the music. They wanted to explore jazz music from the ’50s and ’60s, a period of music that their generation hadn’t previously explored. While there was an audience for this music, there were jazz writers and musicians who excoriated them as “neoclassicists” who were bringing jazz backwards and were not moving the music forward. However, starting from 2000 up to now, the majority of today’s music started to reference rock, hip-hop, pop, R&B, and world music. That’s great except there’s a catch. Almost NO music before 1990 is referenced in the majority of music played today. But if you don’t study the history of jazz, or music for that matter, the good news is that you have an out clause. Jazz magazines and writers created this flavor of kool-aid named “innovation,” and when a musician drinks “innovation kool-aid,” you believe the following principles:

1. Jazz has to move forward into the future.
2. We can’t get stuck in the past with hero worship.
3. Swing is old and dated. We have to use the music of today.
4. Jazz is limiting. You must take a chance by bringing in current styles.
5. I don’t care about the past. I have to do my own thing.
6. We’re past playing American songbook standards. That’s yesterday’s music.

These principals sound as though they have the best of intentions, but what I’ve found is that this point of view actually mirrors the same narrow-minded point of view that the “traditionalists” are being accused of. “Traditionalists,” apparently, are only interested in music from 1900-1969. With the majority of the new music, music after 1969, and sometimes 1999, is the only period of interest. Here’s the reality about music. Genres are neutral, all music is old and music is information. The 20th century has produced lots of music. Rather than dividing it up with categories like “traditional” and “modern” or “old” and “new,” it should be viewed as a century worth of information. There’s information in Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Weather Report, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Genesis, Nirvana, Common, John Legend just to name a few. Hundreds upon thousands of artists in numerous genres were left out, but the point is this music is all available for any musician to employ, or be employed rather. There are those that complain of narrowing music through categories. My complaint is about narrowing music through dates. There’s information that can be incorporated in music from 1900 to 2000 in today’s context. Jazz is an open architecture that includes everything from genres to history.

In closing, there are those who wonder why do I bother? Why am I so outspoken about music? Why not let the music speak for itself? Why am I wasting my time with this subject instead of practicing? Well, I’ve been inspired by music for many years from all walks of life, and to be honest, I’m bored with the majority of the new music being played today. Newer musicians are being selfish by not including a wide range of history and only thinking of themselves over the music. But there’s a bigger problem; I’m not alone. Earlier, I mentioned that jazz had a larger audience with music that was apparently “retrogressive.” Now, today’s music is hailed by some as pushing jazz into the future, but guess what? The audience has dwindled and there are magazine articles asking if the music is dead. Furthermore, the response to my “jazz nerd” video is interesting because there are musicians who disagree with me, but not as many non-musically trained jazz fans share the same view. They’re collectively known as the audience, remember? The fact is that the jazz audience could care less whether any music is “new” or “innovative.” The audience pays their hard-earned money to hear a good show. I’ve talked to many audience members who feel the exact same way I do and are just as frustrated as I am with most of the new music. The problem is that because of “innovation propaganda,” they feel guilty if they don’t like the music. They feel that it’s their fault for not understanding the “intellectual capacity” of it, so they work hard at trying to enjoy the music when they aren’t in the first place. This, in my view, is part of the reason why the jazz audience is getting smaller.

Is there a way to solve this problem? The only solution I have is to restructure the academic curriculum in university programs to be inclusive of all music and introduce students in elementary school, 4th through 12th grades, to music studies. The best thing for a musician to do is not to divide music by years or genres, but by basing it on at least a century’s worth of information. The more, the merrier. Where this will take the music, we shall see. But this approach of unity is more intriguing than division and jazz music can truly grow into the 21st century. In the meantime, I would like to thank those who have commented on my impromptu video and I’m glad we are having this conversation.

Jazz Wars – guest posting on Josh Rager’s blog “x…y…jazz”

by Vannessa Rodrigues
May 10, 2010

Montreal jazz pianist/educator and all around nice guy Josh Rager sent out a call to local musicians to check out a passionate rant by Jason Marsalis about the current state of jazz. Aside from being an awesome jazz musician (more on this later) Josh writes a blog that actively engages the jazz community and often features opinions of local musicians. The following is my long-winded response … hey, he asked for it! He has even added it to his blog as a guest posting 🙂

(it’ll probably make more sense if you watch the video of Jason’s rant first … then again, maybe not …)

re: Jason Marsalis rant at the Rex …

I am always very interested to hear a Marsalis’ take on things; there was a time when I thought Wynton was a stodgy, crusty old purist, stuck in a rut and bitter about it. However, the more I learn about jazz and jazz history, the more I can appreciate his point of view and the more, I have to say, I agree with him.

Think about where the Marsalis family is from … New Orleans, the cradle of American musical culture and birthplace of what is almost certainly America’s greatest contribution to art on the world stage. We look back through the history of jazz with rose coloured glasses, especially now that it’s no longer “the devil’s music”, and has now been institutionalized, systematized, accepted as an academic field of study, and dare I say it, somehow sanitized in the process as well. Early jazz was thought of by the white upper class as low-life brothel and gambling hall music that the undesirables (read “blacks”) partook in, and it ultimately took Europeans to recognize and nurture this incredible emerging art form.  (Germans Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff launched Blue Note Records). Wynton was around to see his fellow African Americans press on through unimaginable hardship and win their civil rights, only to have the image of his culture be reduced to the vapid glorification of black on black violence, to the benefit of Big Entertainment Corp.

Some of the most romanticized, revered figures in jazz history that we admire today were often victims of police brutality and racial profiling, debilitating drug addictions and a host of other problems affecting mostly the poor and down-trodden. (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell come to mind). If we look farther back in history to the blues, the original roots of jazz and all African American music (and by extension rock & roll and pop music), we see that it is the mournful cry of an oppressed people who also had hope and a sense of humour to see them through; there is such a rich pallette of emotions in the blues, the songs tell incredible stories of suffering and despair, love & laughter … to call yourself a jazz musician and shrug off the blues as being old and tired is like calling yourself an Italian chef and deciding that tomatoes and olive oil are boring and passé and are going to cook with something newer and more exciting. You have removed a key element of the essence of what it IS, one of the main things that makes people fall in love with it, and it ceases to be what you say it is if you do that.

I’m not saying that in order to be considered jazz it can only be Cotton Tail played like Ben Webster plays it, but what I am saying is that for it to be meaningful, the history, and therefore the melodies, rhythms and phrasing, have to be respected and built-upon. It’s a language. All languages evolve by building on what came before. Nobody speaks Latin anymore, but anybody who speaks French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Romanian can read, understand and appreciate Latin, and through that gain some insight and respect for the history and lives of the people who spoke it while experiencing the constant evolution of their own languages in modern times.

Jason talks about melody and communicating/connecting with the audience, and I’m absolutely with him on this. Like a spoken word performance (stand-up comedy comes to mind), it’s not what you say, but how you say it; it’s about HOW you deliver your story using the common language, and there is NO limit to the creative possibilities involved. Take the ending of Bye Bye Blackbird from “God Bless Jug and Sonny” – Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons … they quote pretty much every tune under the sun during the endless turnaround and the exchange between them gets more and more exciting, more and more energetic, comical, engaging, and dare I say it, orgasmic! They are using this rich vocabulary of timeless melodies and songs and interweaving it in such a brilliant way … I can’t imagine anyone who claims to love or play jazz not being affected deeply by this.

Now, after all is said and done, I can’t say I agree completely with Jason’s rant, (though I think it’s hilarious and he’s totally within his right to say all of those things) in that I believe because the very spirit of jazz is one of growth, progress and exploration, that there is a place for complex meters and chromatic, cerebral improvisation. (Small digression – odd meters can groove like crazy if they’re approached in a natural, organic way – ex. Soulive’s “One in 7”).  That being said, while I can appreciate the particular area of jazz Jason is referring to, it certainly doesn’t move and shake me personally the way a hard-swinging take on an old standard tune steeped in emotion and history does.

So I suppose I’m with Jason 99% 🙂

School Jazz Band Gets Its Groove On

Music master Jason Marsalis helps students hone chops for competition

by Kia Hall Hayes
New Orleans Times-Picayune
March 6, 2008

Gearing up for a national competition next month, the Fontainebleau High School Jazz Band on Wednesday got a visit from a music master and a lesson on “the groove.”

The band has been invited to compete with 11 other bands in the Swing Central Jazz Band Competition, which is being held April 3-5 during the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia. Band Director Lee Hicks said it will be biggest competition in which the 20-member band has participated.
“Some of (the schools) are very well-known,” Hicks said, citing the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Fla. “We’re not going up against lightweights.”

To help the participants, the festival organizers dispatched professional musicians to rehearse with the various bands and offer constructive criticism. Jason Marsalis — a son of jazz great Ellis, brother of fellow musicians Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo, and a member of the Marcus Roberts Trio — was assigned to Fontainebleau.

A jazz drummer, Marsalis has played with world-renowned musicians such as Joe Henderson and Lionel Hampton and co-founded the Latin jazz group Los Hombres Calientes. In addition to playing on numerous group recordings, Marsalis has two albums under his name and continues to play with his famous family.

Hicks, who plays professionally with the John Mahoney Big Band in New Orleans, said he hoped Marsalis, who also is one of the competition judges, would help “improve the groove.”
“Just to get another opinion on how to make the music feel better,” he said.

Hicks said competing with accomplished music programs and receiving feedback from musicians such as Marsalis will be a valuable learning experience for the band, which won the Fiesta-Val Music Festival in Chicago, Ill., last year. The winning band will receive up to $5,000 for its school’s program.

To raise money for the trip, the Fontainebleau Jazz Band will perform with local musicians in a benefit concert at the high school on March 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Jazz pianist Ben Alleman, 17, said he was excited about Marsalis’ visit. He has seen the world-renowned drummer and his father perform in New Orleans and bought the Ellis Marsalis Quartet compact disc.

Alleman was grateful for the performance advice from someone of Marsalis’ pedigree.
“The groove,” he said, is very important for jazz bands. “That’s what gets the people up and gets them dancing,” he said.

Jazz guitar player Sam Chin, 16, said “the groove” is kind of like “the Force.”

If you feel it, you feel good,” he said. “It’s like ‘clean.’ It’s something you feel when you play well.”

Marsalis wasted no time getting band members attuned to his directives.

Bobbing his head along as the band rehearsed Jerome Richardson’s “Groove Merchant,” Marsalis had the different sections of the band work on shortening and then broadening their notes. He encouraged “flexibility with the rhythm” that they embraced.

“The name of the piece is ‘Groove Merchant,’ and that’s what you guys are going to have to do, is groove,” he said.

After having the reed, brass and percussion sections go through the piece separately, and at one point jumping on the drums and playing with band, Marsalis had the young musicians play the song together.

Heads bobbed, and toes tapped. The 1968 song was full of swing, bounce and brass.
In a word, it grooved.

Marsalis said the song sounded better, and that the broadening of the notes had helped.
Hicks said he noticed a definite improvement.

“I mean the groove wasn’t bad before, but I think the groove is going to get even better,” he said.

Jason Marsalis’s T.O. headlining debut

Career delayed by Hurricane Katrina, brother Jason back on track with vibes, drums

by Ashante Infantry
Toronto Star
January 10, 2008

His home only suffered minor damage, but 2005’s Hurricane Katrina had a more consequential impact on Jason Marsalis’s career.

The drummer-vibist, the youngest of the four performing Marsalis brothers, had big plans that fall for the record label he runs with his pianist-educator dad.

“He was going to put a record out, I was going to come out with something; Katrina just wiped all that out,” said Marsalis, 30, in a recent phone interview from his renovated New Orleans home.

Even if the devastating storm hadn’t uprooted them – Marsalis to Jacksonville, Fla., then New York, his parents to Baton Rouge, La. – and focused their attention and finances elsewhere, recording just wasn’t feasible.

“Musicians and engineers that I was going to use, they were all over the place. The studio we used to record at was gone. Fortunately, none of the music got lost, but that kind of delayed things for a few years.”

With only a couple CDs under his own name, Marsalis, who has proven an adept sideman, accompanying the likes of pianist Marcus Roberts, saxist John Ellis and trombonist brother Delfeayo, makes his Toronto headlining debut at Trane Studio tomorrow night to kick off the inaugural Fair Trade Organic Coffee Jazz Concert Series.

The musician, who teaches fulltime at the renowned New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, began playing drums professionally at 14 and has also been performing on vibes since 2000.

“It was actually my father’s idea to explore it, because it was melodic percussion. It’s a very challenging instrument. If you miss one note it sticks out a lot more than any other instrument.”

He’ll play two separate Toronto shows, one on drums, the other on vibes, in sets comprised of standards and originals.

“One of the things I’m going to try to develop over time is music that has not been played on vibes, but sounds great on the instrument,” he said, citing compositions by drummer Winard Harper and a Brazilian musician.

The Crescent City resident credits his hometown for nurturing his musical explorations.
“In New Orleans, I could just start doing a gig every Monday and this is when I was not good at all. I could just do a gig at a small place on a Monday night with not a lot of publicity, no major reviews … just start playing, and then after while I started gigging with other people in the city.”

He describes a small, vibrant music enclave that he’s never felt the need to decamp for bigger parts to benefit his music or career.

“There was always a lot of opportunity in New Orleans for me. Plus, I was already travelling a lot anyway, so I was never interested in living somewhere else,” he says.

“I’m going to be honest, and this is probably controversial, but someone needs to say it: Really, New York being the big time as far as jazz music is concerned is actually over, because the major labels aren’t signing jazz and a lot of the jazz legends that were in New York, unfortunately, have died off now.

“It’s a great city and there’s a lot of music, but it’s not what it used to be. Ironically enough though, New Orleans is a better learning town. The community is a little smaller and it’s easier to get around and there’s other music that you can learn, like a lot of the traditional jazz music, R&B, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music. Those kinds of things go on here. New Orleans has always been a great learning town.”

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.