04.03. – Happy Birthday !!! A year and a half ago, drummer-vibraphonist Jason Marsalis made a big move, leaving his hometown of New Orleans for life on the other side of the Atlantic.
In so doing, Marsalis retraced a journey taken by generations of African-American jazz musicians, from Crescent City reedist Sidney Bechet in the 1940s to New York pianist Bud Powell in the 1950s to Chicago saxophonist Johnny Griffin in the 1960s, all of whom found heightened recognition and respect in France.
The youngest sibling of celebrated musicians Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo Marsalis, Jason Marsalis says he moved to France for multiple reasons.
“I was working in Europe a lot more,” explains Marsalis, who brings his quartet to Andy’s Jazz Club on Jan. 25.
“It also was a good opportunity for my family. I have three daughters and my wife. They were already in French immersion (classes), so it was a great opportunity for them. We may return stateside at some point.”
For now, though, the Marsalises are reveling in the experience, he says, doing French immersion in the best way possible.
How is life in France?
“I’d say it’s an eye-opening experience,” explains Marsalis. “Just to be somewhere that’s different than what you’re used to in the States.
“There are always things you’re going to like, and things you’re going to dislike. One thing I like about the town I live in is that it’s definitely a lot slower pace.”
That town, appropriately enough, would be the namesake of his birthplace, Orleans. It’s about an hour south of Paris, says Marsalis, putting him in proximity to one of the world’s great jazz capitals.
The music pervades Paris, the French long attuned to jazz perhaps because they were present at the creation. Jelly Roll Morton, the first jazz composer, attended the French Opera House in New Orleans in the late 19th century, as did uncounted Creole musicians like him. The experience made a profound impression on Morton, French musical culture helping define the nascent New Orleans sound that eventually would be termed jazz.
Marsalis says that, unlike his family, he doesn’t speak French. Then again, he travels so prolifically across Europe and the United States that English serves him well.
How do the French regard the New Orleans family that has settled in old Orleans?
“One thing that’s interesting: You’re an American first and black second. If there’s any issues, it’s going to be from being an American, not from being black,” Marsalis says — sentiments that echo the experiences of generations of jazz musicians.
“In terms of how I’m treated, there is a lot of respect that I do get. Some of it is being a musician from the States. As far as regular, everyday folks, I haven’t run into any issues. I’m sure there are some who will be curious about who we are.”
Due to his intense travel schedule, Marsalis hasn’t had many chances to collaborate with his French peers, though he has made a recording with the band United Colors of Mediterranee and has played a single show with it.
“Oddly, the gigs I’ve done with Paris musicians will be from elsewhere but live in France,” Marsalis says. “They might be from Australia … the scene is more international.”
If there’s a noticeable evolution in Marsalis’ art, it’s one that began before he moved, the drummer increasingly focusing his attention on vibraphone. For the Chicago engagement, he says, he’ll play music from his forthcoming album “Melody Reimagined,” to be released this month on Basin Street Records.
Marsalis’ quartet will play music from the new recording, which is predicated on reimagining landmark compositions.
“It’s really a musical concept that I try to explain to people who aren’t musicians in a way that they can understand,” says Marsalis, who elucidates on the idea in performance.
“I tell the audience of examples of tunes based on other tunes. Charlie Parker, for example, wrote ‘Ornithology’ on the chord changes of ‘How High the Moon.’”
In Marsalis’ case, “rather than write a simple melody over these changes, there are a lot of things that happen” in his re-conceptions, “whether it’s harmonies that go to different places or different things that happen in a piece.”
But Marsalis’ set won’t be confined to the “Melody Reimagined” repertoire, he says, because he prefers to “use tunes from different time periods. Sometimes it’s a standard, sometimes it’s a jazz standard, sometimes it’s a traditional jazz tune, sometimes it’s based on a 1980s pop tune. I just tend to draw from a lot of different sources.”
For the future, he envisions deepening his commitment to the vibraphone, perhaps performing with a percussion ensemble.
“But,” says Marsalis, citing the challenge that involves, “I have to write the music first.”
As much as he’s savoring life in Europe, he notes that he’s relishing touring the U.S.
What do the French think of what’s happening politically in the States these days?
“They think it’s crazy,” says Marsalis. “Obviously.”
“Music is always in motion,” states Jason Marsalis, and whenever he’s behind the drum kit, the music moves with graceful swing and crackling intensity, hurtling away from the familiar into fresh, exciting territory, like a bullet train headed from New Orleans to Chicago and on to destinations unknown.
Music in Motion, Marsalis’ second recording as a leader/composer, portrays this express journey from the past and the present to the future of jazz. The fuel? High-grade, premium rhythm, of course, supplied not only by the twenty-three year old drummer, but also by his team of young engineers: John Ellis (tenor sax), Derek Douget (alto & soprano sax), Jonathan Lefcoski (piano) and Peter Harris (bass). This record taps into the rhythmic potential of all these instruments, as well as new compositional avenues created by incorporating unusual rhythms into the jazz idiom, which keeps the music chugging briskly through seventy-four minutes of sinuous original material.
The track “Maracatu de Modernizar,” for example, is “based upon a northeastern Brazilian dance rhythm put inot a modern jazz context,” says Marsalis. Similarly, the track “Seven-Ay Pocky Way” utilizes a New Orleans second-line groove in 7/4 time, but Marsalis makes a distinction between two types of second-line music: “The traditional style, composed and performed by Paul Barbarin, Jelly Roll Morton, Baby Dodds, and Louis Armstrong, and the funk based second-line of the Mardi Gras Indians, the Wild Magnolias, the Meters, and so forth. ‘Seven-Ay’ is straight out of the Wild Magnolias tradition.”
Tradition, of course, is something Marsalis understands deeply. Not only is he a part of the famous New Orleans jazz tradition, which has created innumerable legendary drummers, such as Warren “Baby” Dodds, Ed Blackwell, James Black and Herlin Riley, he belongs to a renowned musical family; his father Ellis and older brothers Wynton, Branford, and Delfeayo have dramatically influenced the jazz world for almost two decades.
Jason is no exception, possessing the technical virtuosity, innate rhythmic aplomb and the compositional ingenuity associated with his forbearers. But deep roots haven’t prevented him from also developing a refreshingly progressive approach, fueled by eclectic influences (he’s just a likely to reference Igor Stravinsky, Tito Puente and Billy Cobham as Max Roach and Art Blakey) and diverse professional associations in his native New Orleans.
In the last several years, besides studying classical percussion at Loyola University, he’s worked as a sideman in contexts ranging from his father’s modern trio and other local straight-ahead combos to funk fusion bands, a Brazilian percussion ensemble, and even a Celtic group. He’s also joined acclaimed pianist Marcus Roberts’ trio, a partnership fostering creative growth in Marsalis which Roberts recently described as a “spectacular…He’s shaped his own vocabulary far beyond anything I could have shown him.”
In addition, Marsalis co-founded Los Hombres Calientes, a unique cross-cultural group which fuses Latin, Afro-Cuban, African and other styles with modern jazz to create a gourmet New Orleans gumbo. This group has released two groundbreaking recordings, both on Basin Street Records, and, thanks to consistently dazzling live performances, continues to make waves on the international music scene.
Marsalis’ debut recording with his own band, The Year of the Drummer (Basin Street Records), which came out in late ’98, reflected this wide spectrum of influences, as well as the drummer’s knack for incorporating atypical compositions and experimental nuances, such as layered drum over-dubbing and unusual tempos and time signatures. Music In Motion takes these elements to the next level, aided by a band which has developed a tighter, more invigoration rapport, allowing for cohesive sojourns into more challenging terrain.
Marsalis describes the track “It Came from the Planet Nebtoon,” for example, as “our version of group oriented improvisation without changes (in nebulous fashion). The lineage of neb goes from Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free,” to Herbie Hancock’s ‘Madness,’ to Wynton’s ‘Knozz Moe King,’ to name a few, and is still growing. Even though the compositional form is AABA, once the solos start, just hold on to your, uh…well, hold on to something and go fro what you know!”
Of course, there is more straight forward material on the record, such as the tender ballad “On the First Occasion,” or the gentle excursions “Short Story #1,” “Treasure” and “The Sweeper.” But there are also many surprises in store for the listener, such as the short interludes at the end of several tracks where Marsalis’ drums accompany a mesmerizing metallic tonal vibration, which, if you listen closely, is actually a voice from a computer program saying “Music is in motion all the time, always moving, developing…” Deftly woven drum over-dubs on “Discipline Strikes Again” create a fascination network of interlocking rhythmic layers, portraying what Marsalis might sound like with a dozen hands and feet. And a hidden last track consists of an extraordinarily adroit whistling solo, in which Marsalis draws from a vast library of jazz melodies.
For Marsalis, all of these diverse styles, moods, textures and playful investigations are necessary to keep jazz vital as it continues its journey into the next century. “I want to bring a lot of new ideas into jazz, and expand on the tradition,” he says. “If jazz is to keep moving forward, all of the musical styles in jazz history have to be advanced while including musical styles outside the jazz realm. Now that…is Music in Motion.