Jalen Baker: embracing the unpredictable through vibraphone

Jalen Baker: embracing the unpredictable through vibraphone
Jalen Baker

Music continues to be the safest place when life seems to turn inexplicable. In those moments, improvisation stops being a concept to become a way of life. From one moment to another, the steps transform into notes that flow at the same tempo as life changes.

Be Still album cover

Embracing a new beginning entails allowing the unpredictable of the present to be the flame that feeds the creative process. "It goes hand in hand. Art always reflects the times that we are in. I think there is space for all kinds of emotions." The words are from vibraphonist Jalen Baker on the occasion of Be Still, his latest production. "The record is about accepting what's going on around us, letting life take its course, and embracing it with joy."

Be Still is more than an album; it's a living record that documents the changes in the life of Jalen Baker. The return to Houston and the isolation caused by the global pandemic were the perfect combination to start the search for new sounds. "The opening track Twas is an older tune. I wrote that song maybe five years ago, but everything else was written during the last couple of years, during the pandemic. With a lot of free time, I got things together, and they worked out."

Throughout eight songs, Jalen demonstrates why his name is beginning to stand out in the contemporary jazz scene. "It's not just me taking a solo, but all of us interacting together make most of the tunes work well because there is this constant communication across the band." Five compositions help capture the bright sound of his mallets. However, this would not be possible without the company of pianist Paul Cornish, bassist Gabriel Godoy, and drummer Gavin Moolchan. "The cool thing about it is that all the guys in the band have some space to showcase what they could do. The improvisations and the synergy of the band are getting better."

The collective effort is present during all tracks. In the complexity of the solos, many colorful textures and harmonies are born. "The idea behind Be Still, the title song, is relaxing and taking things as they come. This tune represents the changes you have to deal with in daily life. Let life present as it is, and always be willing to accept the challenges."

Jalen's musical story can be told from different perspectives, that is, from his beginnings playing the drums, through his performance in classical music, or as a percussionist who has known how to adapt to the opportunities that art offers. "I wrote The Light for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It was an exhibition based on light and the different ways this element is produced: metaphorically and physically. I focused on the metaphorical side of things and discussed how light serves as a symbol of hope and better days. That tune is very energetic and fun."

As a living documentary record, there are cinematic passages. The song There’s Beauty In Fear is probably the climax, where this quartet demonstrates they can dance around the vibraphone, giving shape to a past that today is only a memory. "If you are afraid of something, I think oftentimes you can unlock something very special about you if you are willing to deal with it. Anytime fear is involved, there’s a great opportunity to grow. The best opportunities are on the darker side."

Lexi's Lullaby is for a little cousin of mine who, at the time, was a newborn. I don’t like little kids; it's not really my vibe, but she is just adorable. The world was crumbling around us, and she was just laughing and smiling. There’s always something to be happy about, and I saw that in her.

Be Still is an energetic and honest album that opens a door for those looking to enter the world of contemporary jazz. In its depths, nostalgia is welcomed with a cover of the classic Body and Soul. Meanwhile, Jalen Baker emerges as one of the percussionists who doesn't dwell in the past but instead evolves to focus on the sounds of the present while we wait to hear from him in the future.