By Rick Koster
Some years back, in the spirit of curiosity, Jason Marsalis, a superior drummer/composer known for his post-bop and Latin jazz recordings — not to mention membership in a family that includes siblings Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo and father Ellis — wondered what might happen if he added vibrophone to his musical toolkit.
After all, it IS a percussion instrument. At the same time, its properties introduce all sorts of melodic and harmonic possibilities beyond Marsalis' drum kit. Finally, Marsalis correctly regarded the vibes — an instrument most associated with such giants as Lionel Hampton, Gary Burton, Red Norvo and Gary Hutcherson — as largely forgotten or at least overlooked in the vocabulary of contemporary jazz.
Friday night in front of a SRO audience in the intimate Oasis Room at New London's Garde Arts Center, Marsalis and his Vibraphone Quartet put on a majestic clinic that spanned not just post-bop but an entire litany of musical forms ranging from blues and bossa nova to funk and even New Age (if Thelonious Monk played vibes and hung out with George Winston).
"I'm from New Orleans," Marsalis said at one point in the first of two rapturous 45-minute sets. "We play all kinds of music down there. Except bounce." He laughed, referring to a form of rap invented in the Crescent City. "I'm not going to play bounce."
Indeed, everything else seemed fair game, and Marsalis and his wonderful and empathetic band — pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer Dave Potter — seemed to delight in their individual and collective abilities to shift styles, rhythms and melodic invention in quicksilver fashion.
Largely focusing the set lists on the rich material off their latest album, the brand-new "In a World of Mallets" (Basin Street Records), the four musicians seemed to delight in the musical frontiers at their disposal.
Tunes such as "Blues Can Be Abstract, Too," "Ballet Class," "Ill Bill," "Louisiana Gold," Hampton's "Midnight Sun," "Closing Credits" and the astonishing "The Nice Mailman's Happy Song to Ann" provided a wealth of options for sonic exploration — but never at the expense of cohesive structure and melody.
In dextrous and dynamic fashion, the quartet moved from delicate, butterfly-wing interplay to full-blown tidal waves of dizzying and odd meters; or from rollercoaster free-falls to the sort of teasing and anticipatory subtleties that brought to mind a cat chasing a ball of string as thrown by Charles Mingus.
It was a wonderful night of music presented in a fashion the layperson could appreciate and enjoy — even as the fierce jazzhead might marvel over the seemingly limitless scope of the musicians' range and imagination.