The youngest member of the Marsalis clan is not how you’d expect him to be. He admires his brothers, but doesn’t speak from the mountaintop. He claims no prestige or fame from his last name, and usually hates it when he’s lumped in with his family for no reason other than his last name. He lacks all traces of ego or the prima donna tendencies of the young Wynton Marsalis.
However there are some similarities. His knowledge of the music is exhaustive. He is one of the people who use months rather than years to date recordings. There is a distinctive cut off point for his study, however. He knows very little about any of the free movements of the late 60s and early 70s, and will freely admit this, along with a statement of disappointment in himself and an eagerness to get more steeped in that music. His lack of knowledge in this subject is outweighed by his knowledge of early jazz and the New Orleans tradition. Despite this, he’s very open to learning more about music that he doesn’t know about, even if all signs point to it going against his tastes or beliefs.
Many have heard about the JNI rant, or worse, have seen the video. Few have read the essay that he wrote, or his responses to radio stations that openly criticized his opinions. Firstly, the one thing I admire about Jason’s attitude is that he wants to be proven wrong. He has broad but specific wants in his music, but he is no curmudgeon. At the end of the day, he would much prefer the music he hears to be interesting over hearing that all of the uninteresting musicians have quit music(which I feel is sometimes the general feeling these days. I myself am guilty of it all too often).
I was worried about this when I first started hanging with him(as return readers know, I desperately want everybody I like to respect and enjoy everybody else I like…). Around that time was the first time getting into the music of David Binney, Jacob Sacks, Dan Weiss, Jason Moran and other modern New York musicians, along with AACM music, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. I found myself trying to explain and prove that these people all loved the music, why I loved them even though I was a total conservative at the time.
To my absolute delight, I didn’t need to. What I heard shocked me. He liked “Graylen Epicenter”. When wading through the boring NYC music that he thought was uninteresting, he found Miles Okazaki and thought that it was great because his “compositions were tight and together, and the music was really coming from somewhere sincere”. When we talked about Cecil Taylor, we discussed how on Jazz Advance he has Bud Powell’s beat, and he plays Duke and Monk tunes, along with standards. We discussed how neither of us had really checked out the AACM stuff, but his eyes lit up when I said that Muhal showed an exhaustive knowledge of Duke when he played solo.
As an aside, this is the first time that I realized that there are fabricated schisms in the music.
On the surface, the JNI rants seem to dismiss all of these people, but Jason likes all of them. That’s not to say there aren’t people he dislikes, but here are people who are playing straight eights music without the “spanish tinge” in mixed meters, and he enjoys it and recognizes it as ear-worthy music.
Even the people he dislikes are subject to strict scrutiny. His phrase is that “Everything I say is based on playing with people or hearing them live. I inform myself to the best of my abilities.” This isn’t bullshit. He can name all of the tunes, and he’s played with all of the cats. Not long ago, he played on a gig with John Ellis(who is a long-term collaborator of his), Mike Moreno(!), Matt Penman(!) and Robert Glasper(!!!). I would bet that none of those names(save John Ellis) would strike any type of connection to Jason Marsalis in anyone’s mind. He has been on the bandstand, and he can speak with that authority. He isn’t thrilled with Mark Turner’s playing these days, mostly because he played with him when he was younger and loved it.
Enough about that, let’s get on to the music. The band has been playing together for about five years, I believe. All of the musicians in the band are former students of Marcus Roberts and have been practicing together for quite some time. Apparently Marcus has a whole bunch of exercises for practicing as an ensemble, which I have yet to really probe these guys about.
Since most don’t know these guys yet, here’s a run down.Will Goble is an up and coming bassist, who has played with Marcus Printup, Wessel Anderson, and everybody else who decides to come through Atlanta where he lives. He has a great tone, and knows a lot of tunes that my generation has either forgotten or not even heard of, which is right up my alley. The drummer is also from Atlanta, Dave Potter. A really strong beat and an excellent sense of phrasing. He also knows the Herlin Riley school of groove, and pulls off some great beats with aplomb. He also really knows his music, specifically drummers, historically. Austin Johnson lived in NOLA until recently, although other than his feel, his piano playing wouldn’t necessarily suggest that. He is a second generation Tristano student(although his playing wouldn’t suggest that either), which gives him an excellent grasp on harmony. He’s always learning and experimenting; his approach when I saw him a few years ago was coming out of Wynton Kelly and Nat King Cole, but this time, his playing was peppered with slightly jarring harmonic phrases, something more expected from Keith Jarrett, Herbie or McCoy(with Nat King Cole’s feel. Go figure).
I am no expert on modern “mainstream” music, but from what I’ve heard in the last four or so years, this band’s sound is unique. The music is again, very complex while coming out of interesting harmonic and rhythmic worlds. The rhythm section creates a fantastic floating feeling under the soloist, and the changes in form really create an interesting environment for improvisation.
Also, as with Marcus, this band doesn’t use charts. Most of the tunes are originally learned by ear, and then memorized. Marcus had about 20 tunes that he played over the week. However, this band played 6 nights and didn’t repeat a single tune. It was quite impressive all around. Once again, these charts are HARD.
Their old CD, Music Update, showed the great compositions from Jason, but the playing, to be brutal, was not quite there. Now however, their sound has emerged, and the concept is very much in focus. Also, the new compositions from the guys in the band are fantastic. All of the tunes are really great, but the ballads are really special. You don’t hear many bands whose forte is ballads. It’s really refreshing, and Will’s tone and Austin’s harmonic sense really make it happen. A sound for sore ears, as they say.
So if you still imagine Jason as an egotistical NOLA conservative, consider that last week he played 22 sets of complex “modern” music in 6 days, 5 of which were in a slot that usually is reserved for locals who haven’t made a name for themselves. I encourage you to reconsider your view.
“The thing is, that cat can play some bad shit! I know that because I was up there playing with him!” —Jason Marsalis, probably his most used phrase when discussing contemporary music
and a bonus quote!
“I think people are starting to realize that I’m not crazy. Well, I mean, I’m a little crazy but…”—Jason Marsalis