With pianist Ellis Marsalis and his famous sons, Wynton (trumpet), Branford (saxophone), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drums/vibes), the Marsalis family of New Orleans can stake a claim as the first family of jazz. But if that conjures up images of a father and his sons jamming in the living room, well... that's just not how it was.
Jason Marsalis, who brings his Vibes Quartet to Kilbourn Hall Saturday, June 21, is the youngest of the sons, separated by 17 years from Branford, the oldest. Both Wynton and Branford were already touring when Jason was getting started. Today the brothers have careers and families and they don't get together often. "We see each other when we can," says Jason. "We're aware of what each-other is doing."
Marsalis is amused at how the jazz press has covered the family over the years, including the tension between Wynton and Branford.
For instance, when Branford left Wynton's band to join pop star Sting three decades ago, and Wynton criticized him, Jason says, the press played up a sibling rivalry. The truth, he says, is: "Branford was having trouble with his solo career, and he had to break out. But when Branford broke out, Wynton's band was in shambles. People don't know about that."
People also might not know Marsalis as a vibes player. A formidable drummer in the Marcus Roberts Trio, Los Hombres Calientes (which he co-founded), and his own bands, Marsalis got his first set of vibes in the early 1990's when he was 14.
"I was moving in the direction of classical percussion, but my practicing was inconsistent," says Marsalis. "In the year 2000, I decided I really needed to play this instrument. I started going out playing gigs. I couldn't really play then, but I knew that I had to do this. It would get better bit by bit. Seven years later, I had a band that I was touring with, and I started writing music for it."
Now he not only solos beautifully on the instrument, but he sometimes uses the difficult four-mallet technique.
"Four mallets is a pain in the ass," says Marsalis. "It is not easy. Most vibraphonists use two mallets for solo; if they want to do chords, they use four. Some guys, like Gary Burton, use four all the time. I use it when playing behind soloists. It's about harmony at that point."
He admires vibes players of the past like Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, but he also praises Burton, especially his albums from the 1960's.
There are dozens of videos of Marsalis playing drums or vibes on YouTube, but none of these matches the number of views for a 2010 clip of Marsalis talking. For almost four minutes, Marsalis discusses a fictional organization called Jazz Nerds International. He talks about their lack of historical knowledge, their long and pretentious solos, and how boring they make the music.
He'd been thinking about it for a while.
"In 2000, I was not enjoying a lot of the new music at all," says Marsalis. "I was not being moved by it. I thought that a lot of it was music being hyped by jazz writers and jazz media, but I felt that the average person couldn't care less.
"There were younger musicians that I knew who were into that, but they didn't know much about the older records. Meanwhile, the elements of the music that were understood were now debatable. I'm thinking, why are we debating listening to Lester Young?
"A lot of music coming out of New York bored me. A lot of the swing was taken out of the music. A lot of the groove was taken out of the music. It made the 1970's look like a traditionalist era."
Unlike his brother Wynton, who has also stirred up controversy with his views about the less-traditional directions jazz has taken over the last half-century, Marsalis does not dismiss the fusion music of the 1970's. In fact, Return To Forever's "Romantic Warrior" is one of his favorite albums.
"The 1970's guys knew a lot about this music, even though they went in different directions," says Marsalis. "Herbie [Hancock], Chick Corea, even Jaco Pastorius knew what the history of the music was about and knew how to use it in their own ways. That's what separates Return To Forever, Weather Report, and even The Mahavishnu Orchestra from a lot of the stuff that came later.
"When you got to 2000, that stopped happening and all of a sudden, you started to hear guys saying, 'Well, Louis Armstrong's music isn't relevant anymore.'"
But more recently, Marsalis has backed off the video's hard position. "What's different now," he says, "is that there's other music that I find inspiring, musicians like Jon Batiste and Snarky Puppy."
Jason Marsalis and his Vibes Quartet performs Saturday, June 21, 6 and 10 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall at Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs Street. Tickets are $25, or you can use your club pass. Jasonmarsalis.com.