Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
To expand his musical horizons, Ravi Coltrane put his regular band “on hiatus.” To expand HIS musical horizons, drummer Jason Marsalis put his regular instrument “on hiatus.” That may boggle some of the minds that witnessed the youngest Marsalis brother bring the noise with John Ellis & Double-Wide at Red Square a few years ago. However, if those minds had seen Marsalis working with his “new” instrument in the Van Dyck’s upstairs club space, they would have seen that this creative expansion is paying big dividends.
Not only is Marsalis making solid straight-ahead jazz that has deep roots and a positive vibe, but he’s also getting the chance to show how his knife-sharp (and comedically-bent) mind works. In his introduction to the bopping opener “Off-Beat Personality,” he described how his mother told the then-teenager that she was worried he would succumb to “peer pressure” in his New Orleans high school. Sharp as a tack in a grey suit and yellow power tie, Marsalis looked out at the second-show audience, mystified. “How do you succumb to peer pressure when you’re playing jazz music?!”
Point hilariously made, he counted his band into the bopping second cut from his inaugural vibraphone-based disc “Music Update.” As the title suggests, there’s a bit of the off-kilter to “Off-Beat,” as the ghost of Thelonious Monk shares space with Marsalis’ vibes muse, Lionel Hampton. Pianist Austin Johnson worked his figures up and down, left and right, making his own nods to Monk as he turned plenty of heads with his aggressive attack. Bassist Will Goble held the piece’s center steady as a rock while drummer David Potter showed that banging and crashing in front of the drum faction of the Marsalis family holds no intimidation factor for him. Marsalis watched the trio from the side of the stage, bopping and grinning and loving the sound. When he returned to the vibes, Marsalis took the piece in a swirling direction that not only dovetailed with the piece’s title, it also took us into the mind of his protagonist, lost in a dream nobody else understands.
“Off-Beat” was not only a good tone-setter, it was also a great indicator of how Marsalis approaches his adopted instrument. The key word here is “precision”: While many vibes players try to dazzle you by stuffing the largest number of notes into the shortest space of time, Marsalis is all about melody and clarity. He can certainly speed up when he has to, as he did on “The Man with Two Left Feet” – a NOLA-flavored piece about “the other side of dance” – and on a hot Hampton-related medley of “Midnight Sun” and Charlie Christian’s “Seven Come Eleven.” But on aching ballads like Toninho Horta’s “Durango Kid” and the original “Nights in Brooklyn,” Marsalis shows deep respect for the time-honored tradition of letting the lyric tell the story, saving the pyrotechnic for a more appropriate time.
Marsalis’ history with his players goes back several years to when he met them during a residency at Florida State University. The backing trio may look they still should be back on campus in Tallahassee, but they’ve been out in the real world for a while; they’ve all got a little bit of road grit on them, and their chemistry with Marsalis is explosive. Johnson’s solos on “Seven” and the encore “So Rare” (a Jimmy Dorsey composition Marsalis discovered through – wait for it – “The Lawrence Welk Show”) shows that he knows his history and can apply it in his own way. More than a few times during the evening, I listened to him and thought, “I really hope he’s writing his own stuff!”
Marsalis has been writing more stuff for the Vibes Quartet, which will appear on a follow-up to “Music Update” sometime this fall. For now, though, it’s enough to know that this experiment has not only proven to be a success, but it’s opened up new doors for a musician who was already damn good on his “chosen instrument.” Then again, Marsalis chose to go with vibes, too, and that choice looks like the aforementioned “big dividends” are going to keep coming for a good long while.
Rudy Lu’s photographs at AlbanyJazz
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The first of his two hour-plus sets peaked with Modern Jazz Quartet-inspired virtuoso renditions of ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’ and ‘Travelin’,’ a fiery, 20-minute suite. Before this, the young quartet — like conservatory kids in suits and ties — played Marsalis originals that fit his mission, stated after soundcheck, of ‘making the music accountable’ while also overtly instructing the nearly-full house. After this, there was whistling, really, and it was bebop. Marsalis began with a lesson, slagging ‘new music’ players who reject the past as outmoded in favor of challenging audiences. He led the band into ‘Blues Can Be Abstract, Too,’ vividly proving his stated belief that the blues are not obsolete, that they can be many things and that they’re not going anywhere. They did many things with it and went almost everywhere, its sturdy riff-foundation withstanding hard-hitting variations, Q&A episodes, abrupt cadence jumps and full flight energy.”