Excelsior is Jasper Marsalis’ first album under the moniker Slauson Malone 1, but it’s his second solo album since leaving the Brooklyn-based collective Standing on the Corner. Where that group fashioned their tastes in jazz, lo-fi indie, and soul-sampling hip-hop into genre-spanning mixtapes and beats for Earl Sweatshirt and Solange, Marsalis is more interested in layering dissonant sounds on top of one another for dense collages. And so Excelsior is ambitious: Marsalis accompanies himself with nearly two dozen different instruments, from guitar to theremin, from Mellotron to Wurlitzer; the genre experiments combine grungy no-wave, free jazz, chamber music, and more. The results are always unpredictable and occasionally sublime.
Album opener “The Weather” crackles to life like the opening synths of a film score, recorded straight to tape. Marsalis’ syrupy vocals rise and exit with the thump of a piano before the tape loops and the whole process begins again. Those fuzzy, moody compositions will sound familiar to anyone who listened to Marsalis’ previous album, 2019’s A Quiet Farwell, 2016–2018 (Crater Speak). But where that record was a quiet landscape with occasional cracks of thunder, Excelsior fills every corner with words and sound. Some of the strongest moments come when he shares the stage with collaborators who rein in the wilder tastes. On “Decades, Castle Romeo,” cellist Nicky Wetherell provides baroque accompaniment to Marsalis’ guitar work that flows between dreamy strumming and dissonant psych rock. Later, “Us (Tower of Love)” puts Wetherell front and center, creating an affecting piece of modern classical composition to support Marsalis’ modulated vocals.
Marsalis plays with this type of tension throughout the album. “I Hear a New World” begins like a noise rock interpretation of police sirens before resolving into the lull of a harpsichord. “Half-Life” sounds as much like Sonic Youth as it does like a Jeff Parker guitar suite, while the sleepily intimate “Voyager” could as easily be a bedroom-pop B-side or the instrumental for an experimentally-inclined rapper like MIKE. Even “No! (Geiger Dub),” one of the most straightforward tracks, begins with a reggae bassline before Marsalis pairs it with an indie folk vocal that eventually resolves into a short psych-rock jam. While this shapeshifting might seem overwhelming, Marsalis provides some grounding wires: His work on guitar features heavily throughout, either looped (“Voyager,” “Divider”) or gently strummed (“Olde Joy,” “Decades, Castle Romeo”) to help bridge the tracks together.
While Marsalis is swiftly evolving his own sound, his work continues to nod to experimental artists like serpentwithfeet, King Krule, billy woods, and he has expanded his cast of collaborators and references to match his expanding horizons. Excelsior includes production credits from Chocolate Genius and assists from BADBADNOTGOOD drummer Alexander Sowinski; the tracklist includes a cover of eccentric audio engineer Joe Meek and a track (“Undercommons”) named after a collection of essays from the Black cultural theorists Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. It’s a dense piece of work and a dizzying journey, but at its best, you get the sense Marsalis knows exactly where his spaceship is going.
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