The most immediately arresting aspect of last night’s performance by Jason Marsalis at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College was the profoundly cool sound he summoned from the instrument before him. Known through area concerts over the past two decades as a drummer (including a 2005 show on this very stage), the youngest sibling of New Orleans’ famed Marsalis family favored the vibraphone and the melodically lustrous but sonically reserved tone it conjured.
On the opening bars of Blues Can Be Abstract, Too, the vibraphone’s notes hung liked chilled colors in the air that grew more expansive when Marsalis chose to add pedal induced sustain. The tune served as a beautiful introduction not only to the instrument but to what the bandleader chose to do with it.
Fronting what he aptly calls his Vibes Quartet, Marsalis flirted with jazz tradition and tried out more than a few progressive ideas. But that hardly translated into the big band majesty Lionel Ham\pton brought to the instrument from the 1930s onward or the scholarly combo improvisations defined a generation later by Gary Burton. Aside from a few fleeting passages where Burton’s innovations in playing the vibes with four mallets instead of the usual two surfaced, Marsalis followed his own muses, including a few from his native New Orleans.
On Blues for Now, one of eight com positions performed from the Vibes Quartet’s second and newest album, The 21st Century Trad Band, a rugged Marsalis solo on the vibes led into a tight trio run instigated by pianist Austin Johnson. The music became noticeably more playful during the checklist of conflicting grooves that set the stage for The Man with Two Left Feet and its jovial percussive breakdown from drummer David Porter. And for pure Southern melody, nothing beat the curiously titled 18th Letter of Silence where a sunny vibes stride by Marsalis quickly served as a contrast to the dynamics of his rhythm section. Johnson got the lion’s share of the solo spotlight but Potter and bassist Will Goble drove the tune.
Ultim ately, it was the show-closing title composition to The 21st Century Trad Band that defined the performance with a mash-up of familiar melodies (When the Saints Go Marching In was the most detectable), twisted bits of swing and some furious syncopation. The elements may have been rooted in the past but the end results brought the music into the here and now with the tonal splendor of the vibes leading the charge.