Would it be appropriate to compare the JMVQ to the MJQ? Such an acronym-heavy question seemed to hang in the air as the youngest son of a famous musical family brought his Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet to Bates College on Wednesday night. 

The MJQ referred to is, of course, the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet, a group that established high standards for any vibes/piano/bass/drums ensemble.

The 36-year-old Marsalis and his bandmates look and perform with a dignified air of professionalism and respect for the music reminiscent of the MJQ.

All dressed in suit and tie, Austin Johnson on piano, Will Goble on bass and Dave Potter on drums backed the tall and slender Marsalis, who has given increased attention to his vibes work over his drumming in recent years.

Marsalis offered a brief lecture on the continued relevance of the blues by way of introduction to the first piece, “Blues Can Be Abstract, Too.”

The tune, taken from the group’s latest CD, “In a World of Mallets,” as was all of the evening’s 75-minute program, offered numerous variations on a blues progression with a precision not always associated with that form.

The MJQ sometimes was accused (or lauded, depending on your point of view) for playing “chamber jazz.”

Certainly, the JMVQ’s “Ballet Class” would fit well into that designation. 

The group maintained a sense of elegance and restraint while, at the same time, executing some well-choreographed rhythmic twists and turns.

Potter’s composition called “Ill Bill” got so close to a Thelonious Monk sound that the leader felt compelled to quote directly from the source, flashing a grin toward the percussionist.

The Marsalis group, as the leader noted at one point, is willing to incorporate all of the musical traditions available. 

This was perhaps most apparent on a piece oddly called “The Nice Mailman’s Happy Song to Ann.”

Marsalis began the lengthy selection with a solo that included elements of classical minimalism, perhaps owing to Steve Reich, as well as complex patterns reminiscent of gamelan and other world music, which trades in unusual scales. 

The band then was musically called in for a surge engendering some excited shouts from the crowd of 200 or so.

Despite the thrill and impressive speed of such pieces, it was a couple of ballads that really felt right for this band’s instrumentation. “Characters” and “Big Earl’s Last Ride” each added a sort of noirish sense of suspension in a mysterious space.

Potter’s brushwork conjured some moody solos from each musician in turn.

This is where this kind of ensemble can shine and the JMVQ did just that.

They’re young and they know about a lot more kinds of music than the MJQ members could possibly have had at their disposal.

But that feeling of quiet reflection and intimacy that the Marsalis group evinced shows that an important tradition is being carried well into this still new century.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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