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Jason Marsalis to bring mallet-based jazz to Kerrytown Concert House

By John Bohn, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 22, 2013

On Sunday, at the Kerrytown Concert House, Jason Marsalis will be breathing fresh air into the vibraphones and mallet-based jazz with his Vibe Quartet. The performance will include music from his most recent album, In a World of Mallets.

“There are a few songs that have vibes and marimba, or xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells,” Marsalis said. “And I’ve played them, and I’ve overdubbed all of these tracks together with this. And when I thought about it, the title just came to me. It’s like being in a world of mallets.”

Marsalis originally trained as a percussionist, both in drums and classical percussion. With the release of Music Update in 2009, however, he began garnering attention for his skill on the vibraphone. This latest album, released Feb. 19, comprises 14 tracks. Within each song, Marsalis explores what sounds mallet-based instruments can create.

“I see it as an extension, not really a break, with things that I’ve done,” Marsalis said. “There is different instrumentation and I have to deal with melodic solos, but there are similarities.”

In both his drum- and mallet-based recordings, Marsalis went through a process of overdubbing tracks with percussion. In approaching the music and producing, there’s been a sense of consistency, but with the selection of instruments, Marsalis is looking to break new ground.

“I try to shake the form up and do different things with it,” Marsalis said.

“There’s a lot that can be done on the (vibraphone) that has not been done yet,” Marsalis said. “There have not been a lot of vibraphone players in the history of the music. We can name 10 trumpet players or 10 saxophones players in like 30 seconds. But you can’t really do that with vibes. You might be able to get to 10, but it’s not easy.”

In addition to the attention he gained for his skill on the mallets, Marsalis was also a group recipient of the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Award. The other musicians to receive the award were Ellis Marsalis, Jr., Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis and Delfeayo Marsalis. Jason Marsalis happens to come from a family of accomplished musicians, New Orleans’s famous Marsalis family. Throughout his career, Marsalis has played and composed with his father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., and his three brothers.

“I was born much later,” Marsalis said. “The last of six boys. Me and my brothers played music, but by the time I was six or seven, they were all out of the house.”

Interestingly, Marsalis grew up in a house of soon-to-be musicians. His father practiced a lot with him, and his older brother Ellis would be around for lessons.

“My older brother Ellis did come around and we did play a lot together when I was in high school,” Marsalis said. “So I did have support with music. I had a great support system.”

In addition to his family roots, Marsalis also acknowledges the influence of his hometown, New Orleans, on his music.

“(New Orleans) has made me appreciate the history of the music,” Marsalis said. “New Orleans has music that was born out of the city. It’s still sustained in a way, and it made me appreciate those elements as I got older. I even use those elements when I play more updated music.”

This weekend, however, Marsalis is touring with his own band, the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet. It includes pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer David Potter. Marsalis first met his bandmates while on a teaching residency at Florida State University.

“What struck me about those guys was that they were really serious about the music and really committed to it, and I thought I would give them a chance,” Marsalis said. “They’re very serious about the music that we are playing, and they’ve really grown throughout the process.”

Jason Marsalis will be the third Marsalis brother to appear at the Kerrytown Concert House. As the youngest brother, he certainly hasn’t had a head start in making his name known or performing across the country. However, he isn’t concerned with that sense of following in anybody’s footsteps.

“What it means to follow them is something I don’t worry about because I play music on my own terms,” Marsalis said. “I have my goals that I’m thinking about, and I have music that I need to work on to become a better musician. It’s not about what they’ve done in the past. I believe in that music, but I’m not worried about following that. I’m worried about looking in terms of the present and the future in terms of a musician.”