The whimsical artwork for The 21st Century Trad Band depicts vibraphonist Jason Marsalis and his musicians (pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer David Potter) as caped musical superheroes, Goble playing a rocket-powered bass, Potter using his sticks on flying saucers instead of cymbals. While it might be an exaggeration to call the accompanying album an act of heroism, it’s engaging and enjoyable, and certainly worthy of a listener’s consideration.
The 12 tracks on 21st Century (and three iTunes bonus cuts) offer a diverse mix of styles and moods. “Nights in Brooklyn” has a minor-key melancholy that evokes classic film noir, while the jaunty strut of “The Man With Two Left Feet” calls to mind theme music for a Seinfeld-ian sitcom. The politically charged “BP Shakedown” alternates introspective cymbal-splashed passages with an intriguingly uneasy Latin rhythm, and the title track acknowledges Marsalis’ New Orleans heritage with a cheeky quote from “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Although Marsalis is better known as a drummer, his vibes playing is consistently attractive, with intelligently crafted solos and atmospherics that utilize the instrument’s natural vibrato. Marsalis intersperses interludes from his “Discipline Ensemble” throughout, joining his vibes with marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone and tubular bells for a touch of childlike fantasy.
Johnson is at his best as a romantic melodist, particularly effective on the bittersweet “Calm Before the Storm,” and Goble contributes the standout composition “Blessed Unrest,” with its striking interplay of tension and tranquility. The true MVP here is Potter, who delivers whether laying down jittery fast breaks on “Offbeat Personality” or sharing co-composer credit with Marsalis on “Ratio Man,” which finds the drummer building a fierce marching tempo that bursts into whip-cracking cymbal-and-snare explosions. Potter’s playing, here and throughout The 21st Century Trad Band, truly does deserve to be called heroic.