It's not like Jason Marsalis has been invisible since he released Music in Motion (Basin Street, 2002); his name's just been on the back of CD booklets instead of the front. With Music Update, Marsalis is back at the top of the bill, except he's brought a different set of sticks with him, or more specifically, a new set of mallets.
Well, not completely new, it seems Marsalis began experimenting with the vibraphone as a primary instrument about eight years ago, and has been working on a vibes-centered group concept for some time. That group came together when he met pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble, and drummer David Potter during a residency at Florida State University. Given that most of the pieces on Update were penned by Marsalis, any thoughts that this might be a "gadget CD" or a one-off caprice, can be shelved right away.
"Guess Who's Back" picks up a running feature on Motion: Marsalis is behind his "old" kit, and thanks to the miracle of multi-tracking, he becomes a one-man drum corps, exploring all possibilities of a single establishing figure. "Guess" is the first track of (for lack of a better title) "The Discipline Suite," as Marsalis works through several similar "solo" spots where his drumming is influenced by musical schools ranging from New Orleans Second Line and Japanese Taiko toof all thingsdisco!
Fortunately, the last school doesn't come up until the last track. What follows "Guess" is the aptly-titled "Offbeat Personality," a track that alternates between swinging and foreboding, as Marsalis and his partners jump through multiple time signatures while putting down some pretty sweet sounds. Some of the changes are pretty intricate (an interesting choice, given that Marsalis' vibes work is relatively rudimentary), but the quartet hits every one perfectly. The music may not always be riveting, but the group dynamic on Update certainly touches that quality.
While Marsalis gives big props to vibes legend Lionel Hampton with loving covers of Hampton's "Midnight Sun" and Charlie Christian's "Seven Come Eleven," the overall sound on the recording is more reminiscent of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Johnson makes a fine John Lewis to Marsalis' Milt Jackson, each of them putting significant content into a sound that has been unfairly dismissed as "too cool." In many ways, Johnson is the superior soloist, which he demonstrates on "Blues for the 29%ers," but this can be chalked up to Marsalis speaking in what amounts to a second language. When the two work hand- in-glove on "Ballet Class" and Toninho Horta's "Durango Kid," it's nothing but beautiful.
Music Update doesn't break much new ground, but it must be seen to inspire tracks on "The Discipline Suite"an establishing figure. What direction Marsalis takes with that figure will determine whether he can work outside the comfort zone he has created. Given his compositional skill and the potential he shows on his "new" instrument, this could get interesting.
Guess Who's Back; Offbeat Personality; Ballet Class; Discipline returns
Once Again; Characters; Blues for the 29%ers (down to 18%); Discipline
Vacations in Asia; Midnight Sun; Seven Come Eleven; Discipline Mellows
Out; Durango kid; Western Vacation Ranch; Discipline Spotted Baby and
Zutty at Studio 54.
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