The Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet is "In a World of Mallets" on its new album.

Cover art for Jason Marsalis' "In a World of Mallets"

In 2010, Jason Marsalis kicked a jazz anthill when he half-jokingly riffed on video about "Jazz Nerds International" - jazz musicians who

did not take sufficient time to investigate jazz before 1990, nor did they have a belief in that music. I then realized that these musicians did not have many opportunities to play outside of the classroom situation. Therefore, playing jazz for an audience was not part of their musical experience. As I traveled the country, I began seeing this as a trend. Jazz students would play an abundance of notes in an abstract manner without an understanding of basic melodic content.

On In a World of Mallets, the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet returns to this theme with the "Blues Can Be Abstract, Too." His tongue-in-cheek defense is defined by a dense melodic pattern played on his vibes as the band stops and start, threatening to swing, then abruptly cutting that as if Simon Says "Halt." The blues structure isn't immediately obvious - his point, I assume - but when the track opens up to his fleet solo, he's racing neck and neck with bassist Will Goble while drummer Dave Potter swings hard. That gives way to a more measured solo by pianist Austin Johnson before they return to opening arrangement. Abstract? Maybe, but it succeeds in being compelling as a piece of music and as reminder of how playful Marsalis can be while keeping a straight face.

Similarly, "Characters," sounds like a slice of early '60s, cinematic jazz - an exercise in melancholy that could have ended up on a '90s lounge compilation. Marsalis' pillowy vibes trace a haunting theme, perhaps for a woman in love who'll flirt with madness throughout the film until it costs her the one she loves. Marsalis is playing with the sonics of the vibes and their associations. When he lays out for Goble's solo, the track becomes less referential and the mood less theatrical. When Marsalis returns, he picks up the genuine drama Goble established and riffs on it.

In a World of Mallets isn't always that conceptual. "Blues for the 29%ers" is straightfoward, as is the version of Bobby Hutcherson's "Ill Bill," but the album is broken up by a series of solo pieces by Marsalis, created by overdubbing layers of percussion parts. Each is brief, with the clockwork-like "My Joy" the longest at 2:07, and his pensive version of Hermeto Pascoal's "Nenhum Talvez" barely takes up a 1:36 of your time. Each is a remarkable miniature - precise, almost crystalline, and very satisfying in its economy.

These tracks keep the metallic, pillowy nature of the vibes from becoming oppressive, but its hard to imagine listening to more of the solo compositions without descending into a world of micro-obsession. The juxtaposition isn't as jarring as it might sound, though. Marsalis is too conscious of sound to let them clash. His vibes move from the lead instrument to a musical substrata over which more immediate sounds and structures are built, but they remain a sonic through-line that holds the album together. 

In a World of Mallets argues with good humor and talent for a blues-based contemporary jazz, but more than that, it's a reminder of how deceptively smart and witty Jason Marsalis' music is.