It’s a tradition at least as old as bebop: Attach a new melody and/or a revised arrangement to chord changes from a familiar tune. Jason Marsalis formally explores that approach with an album-length set of such pieces, the latest from the working group he now calls the 21st Century Trad Band.
The music is more postbop and swing than “trad” in the sense of the early jazz born in the leader’s native New Orleans. And Marsalis, one of his generation’s most gifted drummers, continues to successfully focus on the vibraphone, playing in a loose-limbed if technically adroit style reminiscent of influences from Bobby Hutcherson to Milt Jackson and Lionel Hampton.
Marsalis nods to his hometown on the jaunty “Bourbon Street Ain’t Mardi Gras,” drawing from the drummer Paul Barbarin’s ’50s-born “Bourbon Street Parade.” Here, he and pianist Austin Johnson play unison and harmony lines on the stairstepping head; his solo, initially over stop-time rhythms, includes quick quotes of “Maria” from West Side Story and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” Marsalis also salutes his musical and family origins on “80,” built on “The Very Thought of You,” its new title a reference to the vibraphonist’s father, Ellis, as well as his late mother, Dolores. It’s a pretty ballad, with trombonist brother Delfeayo and pianist Ellis livening the proceedings.
The vibraphonist and his bandmates—Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer Dave Potter—elsewhere offer a pleasantly varied mix, starting with the tricky, blues-based opener, “Ratio Man Strikes Again,” built on Coltrane’s “Traneing In,” and the chugging “Off the Rails,” informed by “You’ve Stepped Out of Dream.” Miles is here, too, with “Seven Steps to Heaven” reborn as the hard-driving “Soot Sprites,” while the lush ballad “A Peaceful Silence” is an MJQ-tinted mash-up of tunes by Horace Silver and Charlie Haden. The group even takes on ’80s dance-pop, with the pensive, bossa-driven “Passionate Dancer” pulling from the Michael Sembello hit “Maniac.” Call book 1 an intriguing read.