Good vibrations: Jason Marsalis

Boston Globe, August 25, 2009

The youngest scion of jazz nobility, Jason Marsalis has forged a career that’s more eclectic than those of his celebrated brothers Wynton and Branford. Besides his longtime gig as the drummer in Marcus Roberts’s trio, Jason is a founder of the Latin jazz group Los Hombres Calientes. Now 32, Marsalis has a new album, “Music Update,” his first album in nine years, and his third as a leader In that time he’s picked up a new instrument, the vibraphone, and he wields the mallets on eight of the 13 tracks. The balance are overdubbed drum solos that range from marching-band flair to sexy shimmering and even a disco beat. We caught up with him on the phone from his home in New Orleans.

Q. Why get involved in a whole new instrument, the vibraphone?

A. Well, that’s just another side of percussion. It’s interesting: Originally, the vibes was my father’s idea back when I was in high school. I said OK, and after a while I started to get ideas about what I wanted to play on the vibes, even though I didn’t know how to play it yet.

Q. Did you study the music of great vibraphonists like Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson?

A. Actually not at first. I think the hardest thing is, there’s so much jazz I’ve listened to over the years, I just tried to play tunes on the vibraphone that I had learned. Growing up I heard Milt, and I knew Bobby Hutcherson. But the first vibraphonist that I really studied was Lionel Hampton. My swing and approach to rhythm are really based on Lionel Hampton. And I think a lot of vibraphonists don’t use Hamp like they could.

Q. The vibes is a comparatively rare instrument in jazz. Does playing it feel like being in a small, exclusive fraternity?

A. To some degree, yeah. But I think recently the vibraphone community has gotten bigger. In fact, it’s funny: The minute I decided to start playing the vibes, vibraphonists started coming to New Orleans! There didn’t use to be any. Now there’s James Westfall and Roman Skakun. But it’s still a small community.

Q. I can’t let you go without asking the obligatory Marsalis family question. As the baby of the family, did it ever feel difficult for you to forge your own creative identity?

A. In terms of my own musical identity, it’s been easier than people think. People ask if I was under pressure from being in this family, and the answer is no. Another thing is that I played a different instrument – so I could always play with Delfeayo or with Branford. Now there may have been some disagreements about what that identity should be, about what I should do, but I’ve always had a musical vision. It may have been influenced, but it’s never been tampered with.