Jason Marsalis’ third album for Basin Street Records arrived in February, 13 years after his previous release for the New Orleans record company.
A member of the New Orleans family of jazz musicians that includes his brothers Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo and their pianist father, Ellis, Jason Marsalis made his initial mark in the jazz world as a drummer. Shifting instruments, he takes center stage as a vibraphonist for recently released In A World of Mallets.
After 1998’s Year of the Drummer and 2000’s Music in Motion, Marsalis stepped away from recording as a band leader. He had some shedding to do.
“I knew that I wanted to explore the vibes and do that as a leader,” he explained. “So I took some time.”
Marsalis got a vibraphone, a melodic percussion instrument in the same family as xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel, in the early ’90s. He didn’t do much with it until he left the Latin-Afro-Cuban jazz band he’d formed with Irvin Mayfield and Bill Summers, Los Hombres Calientes.
“I looked at the vibes,” he recalled, “and I said to myself, ‘They’re just sitting there. You need to do something with them.’ So that’s when I started practicing more and doing shows with them.”
The vibes opened new possibilities for Marsalis’ composing and performing.
“It’s a melodic instrument,” he said. “It’s another avenue to express my musical ideas.”
In the big wide world of music, vibraphone hasn’t had anywhere near the number of players and composers that more commonly played instruments have had.
“We can name 10 trumpet players and 10 saxophone players who played in jazz music, in a minute,” Marsalis said. “But you can’t do that for 10 vibraphone players. You’d name a few but then you’d have to think about it.”
Ironically, after Marsalis got serious about playing vibes, multiple other players of the instrument moved to New Orleans.
Far from being territorial, he welcomes them.
“Because it makes the instrument more visible,” he said. “More people can see that it can be a melodic lead instrument. Not a lot of people know about it.”
Marsalis formed the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet in 2006. The group features pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer Dave Potter. He had no hesitation about turning his former spot, the drums, over to Potter.
“Oh, no,” he said. “Because I’m focused on playing the vibraphone and what I have to do to play it right. The other reason is I’m interested in whatever drummers can develop. Dave wanted to play this music and that’s fine with me.”
In A World of Mallets, a profusely imaginative album filled with melodies and multiple genres, variously swings, waltzes and gets the blues.
“There’s a sound that I believe in, but aside from that the music can be endless,” Marsalis explained.
In A World of Mallets contains Marsalis’ compositions as well as pieces by members of his quartet and New Orleans pianist and former Baton Rougean Brian Coogan. .
“One, I’m interested in not only playing my music but playing other people’s music,” he said. “Two, I’m interested in music that hasn’t been played on vibes but sounds great on vibes. With Will, Dave and Brian’s pieces, I remember hearing each of them and saying, ‘I wanna play that.’”
The album also contains “Whistle for Willie,” a piece that showcases another of Marsalis’ talents, his brilliant whistling.
“Sometimes I do it on stage,” he said. “It really surprises folks.”