Building his Vibes Band on the same blueprint as the influential Modern Jazz Quartet — which put jazz in tuxedos to claim classical, high-culture respectability – Jason Marsalis’s reach matched his grasp at the Van Dyck on Friday.
The first of his two hour-plus sets peaked with MJQ-inspired virtuoso renditions of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” and “Travelin’,” a fiery, 20-minute suite. Before this, the young quartet — like conservatory kids in suits and ties — played Marsalis originals that fit his mission, stated after soundcheck, of “making the music accountable” while also overtly instructing the nearly-full house. After this, there was whistling, really, and it was bebop.
Marsalis began with a lesson, slagging “new music” players who reject the past as outmoded in favor of challenging audiences. He led the band into “Blues Can Be Abstract, Too,” vividly proving his stated belief that the blues are not obsolete, that they can be many things and that they’re not going anywhere. They did many things with it and went almost everywhere, its sturdy riff-foundation withstanding hard-hitting variations, Q&A episodes, abrupt cadence jumps and full flight energy.
“Ballet Class” was MJQ-like in evoking classical music, but rather than explore classical melodic and harmonic influences, it romped through dance beats. In the slow blues “Characters,” Marsalis let the guys off the leash to stretch out, bassist Will Gobel earning applause and Marsalis lunging in to comment a few times before regrouping the quartet for a sizzling close by linking his vibes to Austin Johnson’s keyboard runs while drummer David Potter played over, under and around the pulse.
“Blues for the 29%” followed, Marsalis noting they had changed tempo “whenever we felt like it” — and they all felt like it at the same nanosecond. It was restless, episodic, all kinds of groove. If this was all music about music, the band’s chops and unity kept the feel real and not pedantic. But the MJQ medley of “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” and “Travelin’ ” was tops — really high.
Marsalis gently re-imagined “Softly,” a reverie whose double-time close perfectly set up the straight-ahead blues-on-the-freeway energy of “Travelin’.” This had all kinds of grooves. Flying or rocking, soothing or seething; the whole thing thrilled and swung and surprised — even themselves. Goble grinned ear to ear as Marsalis drove them into a surging roar.
They shifted to ballad tempo for the closer, “That’s All,” Marsalis explaining he would whistle it and both introducing and closing the tune by himself, with no instrument but himself. The band had little to do but marvel, as the crowd did, during this remarkable if a bit overlong theme-and-variations deconstruction of the familiar melody.
For the rest of the set, Marsalis played vibraphone with two mallets. Best known as a drummer, he played with a master percussionist’s rhythmic inspiration, curiosity and skill; but he also proved himself the equal in harmonic and melodic invention of his bandmates, who were all top-notch.
The show was an emphatic verbal and instrumental dialog among Marsalis, the audience and the post-bop history of jazz.