Jason Marsalis defies expectations on In a World of Mallets, his new album with the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet. This master of rhythm from the First Family of Jazz has made Dave Brubeck-like strides with his use of time on the drum set. Now, with a vibraphone as his weapon, he makes Wayne Shorter-esque explorations in his compositions.

In a World of Mallets

Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet
Basin Street Records

Jason Marsalis condemns the reduction of jazz into exclusive technicality. In fact, he wrote “Blues Can Be Abstract, Too,” the second track on Mallets, to elaborate on this opinion. He fancies himself a guard of the true essence of jazz, and he stands his ground in his new release. Marsalis exhibits technical mastery, but shows how it can be used to express unique melodic and rhythmic ideas.

Polyrhythm, the combination of different rhythms and meters, has always fascinated Jason Marsalis, given his use of it on The Year of the Drummer and other earlier releases. This expertise surfaces at the beginning and end of the LP. “Discipline Discovers a World of Mallets” and “Discipline Gets Lost in a World of Mallets” show off his rhythmic ability in the form of layered melodies — as a drummer, polyrhythm appeared in the background, but now he uses it to play many contrasting vibraphone lines all at once.

His experimentation with time reaches in more directions than just polyrhythm in this album. The tempo changes often and abruptly, allowing his band to showcase its tight communication and comfort with time as it nails the transitions. In songs like “Blues Can Be Abstract, Too,” “Ballet Class” and “Blues for the 29-ers,” the tempo varies just as much as the chords — whenever you get used to one speed, the band will suddenly drop into a slow groove or accelerate to a frantic pace. Marsalis uses this extra element of surprise to spice up his composition.

As far as the vibe goes, a lot of the quartet’s recordings glide and sing in a way that reminds you of the Modern Jazz Quartet, but it grooves with that deep New Orleans pocket. Marsalis runs down the vibraphone like he’s Milt Jackson in “Characters” and “Ill Bill,” but the rhythm section grinds deep into the beat, reminding us that their heart lies in the delta.

Jason Marsalis makes some notable thematic choices, too. “Ballet Class” sounds like a traditional waltz, and the chord changes and lead voices show heavy classical influence. The first track, “Discipline Discovers a World of Mallets,” rings of eastern themes. His use of chromaticism and atonal melodies intrigues even more – the vibraphone lines in “My Joy” defy the ear’s expectation and transcend key signature. The dissonant intro and chromatic solo licks in “The Nice Mailman’s Happy Song to Ann” lilt and inflect like human voices.

Just as the oldest of the Marsalis brothers has a knack for hearkening back to the roots of jazz, the youngest has an affinity for forging an unprecedented sound. In previous recordings, Jason Marsalis has run the risk of letting his technique overpower his compositions — despite his strong disdain for others who make the same mistake. In a World of Mallets pierces with his inner voice, and there’s no denying that Marsalis has grown to be a wiser musician. This is a breakaway record for 21st-century jazz.

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