Jason Marsalis interview

At 40, Jason Marsalis may be the least publicized member of an incredible musical family. But his credentials, while perhaps not as familiar to jazz fans as those of Wynton, Branford or Delfeayo (or even their famous father Ellis), are still quite extensive and impressive. He formally studied percussion at Loyola University in New Orleans before becoming an accomplished bandleader and session musician. He’s collaborated with John Ellis, Michael White, and Shannon Powell, as well as being part of the superb trio Los Hombres Calientes alongside fellow percussionist Bill Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield.

Later he was a member of both a Brazilian and Celtic music group and played in more mainstream jazz settings with pianist Marcus Roberts as well as his other brothers and father. The entire Marsalis clan was named NEA Jazz Masters in 2009. Though he began as a drummer and still plays them, he’s been leading bands on vibes since 2009. His newest LP is “21st Century Trad Band.”  The Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet will make its Nashville debut Jan. 9 at Rudy’s Jazz Room, though Marsalis previously played Nashville as a member of the Marcus Roberts trio. We conducted this interview over New Year’s weekend while he was driving his father around New Orleans, doing some last minute shopping.

When I first began hearing about you as a player you were a drummer. Why did you switch to vibes and are you playing that instrument exclusively now?

“I still play drums. But my interest in vibes goes back to when I was studying percussion, and my father was the person who encouraged me to study and learn the vibes. I’ve been leading the band on vibes for a few years now. I enjoy both of them, but there are some things musically that I wanted to write and play on the vibes, and that was another reason why I made the switch.”

Are there things that you prefer playing on the drums as opposed to the vibes, or is that even a factor?

“Well they are both percussion instruments. It’s really more a question of what you hear and how it works and transfers over to each instrument. I would say from the standpoint of melodies and composition, the vibes is the main instrument that I prefer. When you are talking about rhythms or beats, or approaching a piece from the rhythmic perspective, then I would tend to think about the drums. Right now in terms of what I’ve been hearing the most as a composer and bandleader, it’s the vibes that have become my preference. But that doesn’t mean I might now hear something and feel that it would be better worked out on drums. It’s just right now the vibes are my main instrumental and writing focus.”

Who are some players or musicians that you would consider influences on vibes, and when you made the switch did you begin to concentrate your listening on vibes players?

“Well I did go back and listen closely to some of the masters on vibes. Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton and Bobby Hutcherson were certainly people who I already respected and admired, and now I went back and listened more closely for ideas regarding technique, and sound and approach. But there are some modern players I like as well. Stefon Harris is excellent. There are many fine players out there today. But I don’t and didn’t just listen to vibes players. I’ve listened to a lot of other instruments. You can hear things in a trumpet or piano solo that you then can try and bring to the vibes. I’ve been learning solos on other instruments and then playing those on vibes.”

The configuration that you are using for your current quartet blends vibes with piano, bass and drums. Was there any particular reason why you didn’t include any brass or reed instruments?

“That format was the sound that I was hearing when I began playing vibes, and it’s the one that I still prefer in terms of the things that I want to write and play. It’s the sound that works the best for me as a composer, as well as a soloist. That doesn’t mean it will always be that way of course. But for right now, that’s the direction that I really feel suits what I want to do musically.”

Will the group that you bring to Rudy’s Jazz Room be the same one as on your current album?

“The drummer David Potter has written some material on the record and he’ll be with me. But we’ve got a couple of guys from Atlanta, Craig Shaw on bass and Louis Heriveaux on piano for the Nashville show.”

You’ve played in a wide variety of musical situations and groups. Is there a particular idiom or musical genre that you prefer?

I guess in the broadest sense you could say swing (jazz) is my favorite in terms of playing, especially if we’re talking about the drum set. I very much enjoy Brazilian music. One of the things that I would like to get back to doing at some point is some African music. I also very much enjoy big band music, doing percussion  in that kind of setting. I’d like to also get into playing some funk, especially late 80s or early 90s style. There’s really not any musical style that I would necessarily just reject and say I can’t play that. There are some I enjoy more than others for certain.”

You began playing music at an early age. Were you always interested in percussion?

“I started on violin, but even when I was playing the violin, the orchestra that I was in had a percussion ensemble and that really fascinated me. So I kind of gravitated to the drums and percussion at a very early age. I think it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I was going to be a musician, and the rhythm side was kind of the direction that really attracted me.”

Los Hombres Calientes had a very distinctive sound and that trio had a good following. Any thoughts about possibly reviving that trio?

“I have no plans to do that at this time. I do think it would be interesting to go back and play in that style, and that may be something that I investigate down the line, but no, there won’t be any revival or reunions with Los Hombres Calientes.”

You are part of one of this nation’s greatest musical families. But was there ever a time when you considered some other career, or did you know pretty much from the beginning that you were going to be a musician?

“I got started as a child, and fortunately I showed enough ability that people continued to encourage and push me. My father and brothers didn’t so much try to encourage or discourage as show me things, both musically and later business wise. But it was pretty much a sure thing early that music was going to be what I would do, and I’m glad it worked out that way for sure.”

(Jason Marsalis’ Vibes Quartet Jan. 9 at Rudy’s Jazz Room, 809 Gleaves Street. Two shows, 7 and 9 p.m. Tickets $20 in advance, $25 at the door. For more info call 615-988-2458).