Jason Marsalis talks about his vibes quartet and his history

Just because his father is Ellis Marsalis and his older brothers are Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo Marsalis didn't mean New Orleans' Jason Marsalis HAD to play music.

No pressure at all.

But history teaches us that Jason, now a 35-year-old drummer and vibraphonist, didn't just follow in the family footsteps. Like saintly forbearers, Jason went marching into a career as a jazz drummer - a fluent master of the New Orleanian second-line beats and all manners of post-bop polyrhythms.

By 7, Jason was taking lessons from the master New Orleans drummer James Black; five years after that, he was playing professionally in his pianist father's trio. After graduating from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Jason carved a reputation as a composer/leader of his own band; co-founded the Latin jazz band Los Hombres Calientes; and toured the world with pianist Marcus Roberts.

A few years ago, interested in pushing the parameters of percussion and composition, Marsalis set out to learn the vibraphone. In 2008, "Music Update," the first CD by the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet, was released. The sophomore effort, "In a World of Mallets," is now out, and Marsalis brings the Quartet Friday to the Garde Arts Center's Oasis Room.

Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with Jason Marsalis.

On his exploration of the vibraphone:

What brought me to the vibraphone to begin with was that it offered a different avenue. I was certainly interested because it's a percussion instrument, but it has increased melodic and harmonic possibilities. Plus, there just aren't a lot of people doing it, so it gave us a different musical context to explore as a band.

On how the sound of the vibes quartet has matured and evolved from the first album throught the writing and recording of "In A World of Mallets":

(Laughs) Well, I'm certainly a little more proficient on the instrument. But the group as a whole has a fatter, more confident sound. In fact, for the new album, we re-recorded three songs from "Music Update." It was fun. We did a better job of playing them, and it was fun to see how much new we could bring to the tunes.

We also had a little more time to arrange and record material we'd been playing on the road. I definitely think "In a World of Mallets" will be a big launching pad for this band.

On taking lessons from James Black, perhaps THE most amazing in a long line of New Orleans drummers - and the man who served as Jason's first instructor:

It's kind of sad because, while I definitely remember James, I don't remember a lot about actually being with him or playing with him. He taught me fundamentals that became ingrained, and he turned me onto "Stick Control," the greatest drum instruction book on the planet.

On growing up in what is arguably the greatest jazz family in history - does he remember his brothers rehearsing in their own rooms?

You know what? Not really. My brothers were older and already on the road. I do remember Wynton being home one time and practicing what would be the "Carnaval" album. He'd ask my opinion and sometimes ask if I'd play with him. We'd play "Magnolia Triangle" in 5/4, or he'd play these insane rhythms just to mess with me. I'd hang in there and he'd just laugh. Not a bad education.

Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet, 8 p.m. Friday, Oasis Room, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $35; (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org.


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