The History, Future, & Now of Jazz

Thursday, August 23, 2012 10:44

An Interview with Jason Marsalis

By Casey Pukl

 It’s no secret that the Marsalis family is on top of the jazz world. The youngest sibling of Wynton, Branford, and Delfaeyo, Jason is an extraordinary percussionist who’s latest project involves him layering multiple mallet instrument tracks down and playing all the parts himself. I had the chance to catch up with the youngest Marsalis brother this week to get the scoop on his current record in the works, just what he means when he talks about “jazz nerds”, and what he thinks about the progression of jazz.

CP: What are you working on these days?

JM: I’m working on my next record which will be out early in 2013. We’ll actually be playing music from that at Anthology.

CP: Tell me a little bit about this new record!

JM: This is a record with vibes, and I made it with my band, so it’s vibes, piano, bass, and drums. I have music of mine and of my band members. There’s also tunes that involve mallet instruments. On previous records, I’ve done these tracks that I like to call “disciplines” where I would overdub multiple drum parts to make a big ensemble. Now I’ve just done the same thing with mallet instruments. There are songs where I’ve overdubbed vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, you name it! Some of that will be on the record as well.

CP: That’s rad. So you’re writing arrangements for yourself to play across multiple instruments.

JM: That’s correct.

CP: What has that experience been like?

JM: It’s a lot of fun. It’s something I’ve done before, so it’s something I know how to put together. But I really enjoyed doing it with mallets this time because it’s the first time I’ve ever done something like that. In a lot of ways, it was like building my own percussion ensemble.

CP: This seems like a much larger undertaking mostly because you’re now dealing with harmony and rhythm, so I’d imagine it to be closer to an orchestral scoring situation.

JM: In a sense. With the drums it was kind of like that too.

CP: Anything in particular that inspired you to take on this new project?

JM: My band was really ready to record again. We did a record a few years ago. I wanted some time to go by to work with the band. The band has matured and become a better group, so I waited a while, and then I thought this was the time to do it. I wanted to have a record with original music, but also tunes that I think people can really relate to and get. That’s the whole point of what we’re doing here. That’s music. We’re trying to play music that’s modern, but we want to keep the element of swing, which unfortunately, most modern jazz nowadays has abandoned. We’re trying to keep that groove in our music.

CP: I’m actually very glad you just touched on that. I recall a few years back you used the term “jazz nerd” in an interview and ignited a little bit of a debate.

JM: Oh yeah!

CP: You wrote a response that I thought was just so spot on about what you had intended by using that term and what it means. I do think you made an interesting point regarding some modern jazz musicians who have completely abandoned the accepted tradition. 

JM: A jazz nerd is one who thumbs their nose at the simple elements of the music. They make the music about things that are complex. That’s what being a jazz nerd is. To sum it up, here’s a good story. There was a band that played out of Africa, and the people in the crowd absolutely loved it. But there were two music students in the crowd who couldn’t have cared less. They just had this attitude. But the people loved it and were going crazy. I think that’s what having the jazz nerd attitude is. It’s brushing off the simple stuff that connects. It’s the people who say, “I need t hear something in 5 or 7/8 [laughs].”

CP: [Laughs] Ah, don’t you love those people? Looking at everything like a math problem.

JM: The nerd reduces the music to that. It’s wanting to play the most complex lines possible. There’s a lot that can be done, but the nerd takes all the simplicity out. There’s also those with their innovation propaganda that are always talking about looking for their thing or their next new thing. That’s innovation propaganda.

CP: I had a great interview this week with another artist who made a comment I’ve really been stewing on. She and I were discussing the songwriting process in different places and genres, and there are people who will try to break it down to an equation. You take this form, this progression, this lyric, and now you have a hit. But once you remove the human element, you really have nothing. The human element is the only thing drawing other people into your music.

JM: Exactly.

CP: Can you tell us a little bit about who influences you?

JM: I’m influenced by the whole history of music. Jazz alone, because there’s a ton of other music we could also talk about, but in jazz, I’ve been inspired by Duke Ellington’s music. Just recently I was turned onto a video by a group the original Tuxedo jazz Band. It’s traditional jazz from New Orleans, but it was recorded in the 1960’s. It’s a litle more on the modern side of what traditional jazz was. I’ve been inspired by drummer Billy Cobham, and his album “Spectrum”. Wayne Shorter, whether it’s as a leader, or Weather Report, or with Miles. There’s a lot. It almost becomes a hard question to answer. I could go on and on, but the short answer is that I’ve really been influenced by the past 100 years of music. I try to bring that into the 21st century.

CP: I think that’s the key. It’s great to draw inspiration from and understand the history of what you’re playing, but then there’s also a need to innovate and move the genre forward

JM: Well, here’s the thing about that. I truly believe that one of the things that has done a disservice to the music… well, let me go back. When my brothers hit the scene in the 1970’s, there were those who saw the jazz fusion thing as the music of the future. They didn’t see it as the music of the present. When it ran its course, there were those who saw what my brother Wynton was doing, and they saw him as moving the music backwards. Despite the fact that he was writing original music, it didn’t matter. They were playing acoustic instruments and utilizing the swing elements, and in their minds that was moving the music backwards. They saw it as music from another era that had already been done. There’s always this debate about the need to create something new, but that’s not what it is. I don’t think one should always strive for that. One should create the music that they hear, and if they land at something new and innovative, that’s great too. But I believe that all this talk about innovation drove the music to this point where the swing elements have been eliminated. There are those who feel that the music of Louis Armstrong is no longer relevant; there are those that feel that playing standards is also no longer relevant. I think now they’ve alienated a whole class of the musical audience. While there are certainly people who are into the newer music, there are a whole lot of other people who are saying, “I don’t like this!”

The minute I hear someone talk about innovation, even though it’s a genuine conversation, I take it with a grain of salt. I take it with a grain of salt especially after hearing so much debate about this being new and that being old and then this one has already been played. I hear all that rather than was it great music or not. It’s a personal thing for me. I find after a while that those debates become very tiresome and it loses the point of whether the music was great or not.

CP: I think you make an interesting point here. Innovation has to still have that human element. So many people are mashing up the old and new at this point, and it’s just a matter of what they choose from each category and whether or not it works.

JM: There’s always going to be new music. I just think that musicians try too hard to come up with the next new thing. Anything that they think feels old, they just don’t study it, don’t bother with it, completely ignore it, and miss it all together. Honestly a lot of artists now don’t know enough about the history of the music they’re playing to know what’s new and what’s not. That’s another point that gets lost.

A great example is on Youtube. There will be all these comments and posts saying, “Wow, this music is incredible! I’ve never heard anything like it!” and the video is of Ahmad Jamal in 1959! That’s old!

CP: [Laughs] That’s always stunning to me. Having gone to a school that is known for jazz, I couldn’t believe how many people walked in there and were just learning who Herbie Hancock was!

JM: Yeah! That part of the equation gets lost. The thing about it is that there will always be people creating new music, but you shouldn’t forget the classics either.

CP: Sure. Never forget where you came from.

JM: Exactly.

CP: What are you most looking forward to about returning to Anthology next week?

JM: I’ve played Anthology before, and it’s a great room with really great food! We always love getting together to play music and play for the people. We’ve had a great time before, and we’re looking forward to having a great time again. Playing new music for the people is always a good time.

Special thanks to Jason for his time and insight! Be sure to come out on Tuesday night and experience his latest musical offerings!
Jason Marsalis on Spotify

WHAT: Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet
WHEN: Tuesday, August 28, 7:30pm
TICKETS: $10-$27 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile