Susan Pascal


Susan Pascal's Mallet Jazz
by Todd Matthews, Earshot Jazz
April 2005

Susan Pascal's name is as recognizable on the Pacific Northwest jazz scene as the unique tone of the instrument she plays: the vibraphone. If you mention area vibraphonists, or listen to a CD produced by a local jazz musician and the recording includes a vibraphonist, chances are pretty good that Pascal's name appears in the conversation or on the liner notes. When I mentioned this to her last month, Pascal deflected the praise. "Well, that's interesting, because there are some very fine vibraphonists in Seattle," she said, during a conversation in the living room of her West Seattle home. "There's Tom Collier, who was my teacher at the University of Washington, and who has released two CDs. He's incredible. There's Ben Thomas, who has his own group, produces his own CDs, and is a fabulous player. I think one of the reasons my name might be mentioned is because I've played on various projects that fortunately get radio airplay and gig a lot."

Another reason? Music has always been an important part of Pascal's life. She was introduced to music in grade school, when a teacher in the local public school district provided percussion lessons. Pascal played the violin for awhile, but returned to percussion — specifically the marimba — after listening to her parents play Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass albums. "One day, a little student marimba, which I still have, appeared in the living room and I started playing on that," Pascal recalled. "I took lessons on it, and that's how I really got into percussion." She performed with her middle- and high-school bands in the Shoreline School District and explored classical percussion with the Seattle Youth Symphony. It was in high school that Pascal started to grow fond of jazz percussion. "For awhile there, I was thinking I would be a symphonic player," she said. "But then when I started listening to jazz vibe stuff, like Gary Burton, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and that kind of stuff in high school, I got more interested in the jazz vibraphone." It was at the University of Washington, where she initially set out to study classical percussion, that her fondness for jazz took hold. "I realized I was much more interested in jazz at that point," she said "Hearing that Crystal Silence album, which came out I think in 1973, I think a lot of people had that experience. That recording made a mark on a lot of people."

Pascal was torn between careers in classical or jazz percussion, and she dropped out of the university for a brief period. "I always wanted to play melodic material," she explained. "When I was in the orchestra, I envied the first violinists who were constantly playing all the time. In the percussion section, you had to sit back and literally count hundreds of measures while waiting. Meanwhile, I was just listening to great jazz music: Gary Burton, Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson — those fabulous players were really inspiring."

Pascal found a day job and combed the listings in The Rocket for jazz bands. The first group she joined was the 'No Nukes! Stop Rape! Jazz Band,' led by saxophonist Dan Greenblatt. She also responded to listings for piano players. One group invited her to audition. Shortly thereafter, she was hired. "It was wonderful," she recalled. "We had a guitarist, bassist, drummer, and the vibes. We started playing all kinds of stuff, and we performed quite a few gigs around town."

Pascal's interest in jazz was sealed. She returned to the University of Washington to complete her degree. She also started to aggressively seek performance opportunities — whether at clubs, on recordings, or even theatre and motion picture soundtracks. "People who want to specialize in vibes have to create their own band and performance opportunities," she said, referring to the instrument's reputation as somewhat unconventional. "The people who succeed at the vibes are really aggressive bandleaders and promoters. When I first started really wanting to get out and play more vibes, I decided I was just going to learn as many standards as I could and go out to jam sessions. Sometimes I would get tired, or I would have my day job and I didn't feel like going out. But once I was out, I was really glad to be there."

She also set out to inform musicians and audiences about the instrument's unique sound and quality. She auditioned for bandleaders initially seeking a pianist or guitarist, and was hired based upon her performances and the vibraphone's complementary sound. "That's something I did with the Jazz Police," she said. "I've played with them for a number of years, and all along they have used either guitar, piano or vibraphone."

Pascal hasn't entirely ditched her classical training. In fact, that versatile background has helped broaden her career. She has recorded for a wide range of musicians, including the slide guitarist Orville Johnson, the steel drum band The Toucans, the Plymouth Trio (which performs sacred music for the Plymouth Congregational Church), jazz vocalists Edmonia Jarrett and Greta Matassa, composer Daniel Barry, and The Jazz Police. She has also found her niche recording for motion picture soundtracks, including The Wedding Planner and Office Space, among others. "Seattle has really become one of the major areas in the country for recording film scores," she said.

Still, one area remains unexplored: her own recording as bandleader. "I think I've been waiting to have something that really feels unique and mine," Pascal explained. "I really want to wait until I have something that's new. I would prefer not to do a CD of standards — although, I've enjoyed playing standards. What I find myself really excited by is something like the Mike Stern show I saw in New York City last week. They played standards, but they were standards de-constructed. They would do improvisations and then they would go into a rough sketch of a tune that I recognized. That's kind of fun and very cool. I think I'm waiting until I have something that will be new."

One project that might contribute to her own recording is a long-standing job at the Plymouth Congregational Church, where she is tasked with creating sacred music for performance each week. "I've been studying the music of a lot of other people for that," she said. "Sometimes it's material I compose. Sometimes it's the music of other people that I like. It's kind of nice as a workshop for me to study new music because I have to keep generating new music for that every week."

Pascal also leads her own quartet, which includes a rotating roster of the finest jazz musicians in town: pianists Larry Fuller and Randy Halberstadt; bassists Doug Miller, Jeff Johnson and Chuck Deardorf; and drummers Mark Ivester and Portland-based Gary Hobbs. She also works regularly with guitarist Dave Peterson. "The sound with guitar and sound with piano is really different," she said. "I love aspects of each one, and I wish I could take certain aspects and role them together. The guitar has that beautiful long sustain and beautiful tone, and there's a lot more space. With the piano, it has that percussive crunch, and I love the percussive aspect."

Despite its unique sound and unconventional reputation, Pascal has built an impressive music career — a career as amazing as the instrument she performs. "People will say, 'I never saw that before. I never heard it in person before,'" she said. "Maybe they heard it on the radio. But when people see it, they're really excited about it. On the vibes, I think that kinetic, visual thing is fun for people. It's fun to watch."

Pascal, Matassa spread the good news
by Jason West, All About Jazz

British author Jonathan Raban, in an essay first published in the Guardian of London and recently reprinted in the Seattle Weekly, writes: "When I first moved here, I cherished the fact that Seattle has one of the lowest churchgoing rates in the nation, and when it does go to church, it likes its religion to be on the cool and damp side—Lutheran, Catholic, or Episcopalian, for preference."

For purely selfish reasons I enjoyed reading "The War: Letter from Seattle," Mr. Raban's report on my hometown's liberal, anti-war proclivities and acknowledgment of our "cool and damp side" with respect to organized religion. I am, in fact, more apt to commune with the music of John Coltrane than visit a local church.

At least that's what I used to think before attending a recent Seattle Jazz Vespers concert organized by the Seattle First Baptist Church. There, beneath SFBC's towering Gothic spire, I was offered something a shelf full of Coltrane discs cannot provide: an immediate, in the moment dialog—at once peaceful and pressing, captive and liberating—of live jazz.

That dialog occurred March 31 at 6pm when SFBC's pulpit was occupied by local vibraphonist Susan Pascal and her quartet featuring Randy Halberstadt (piano), Jeff Johnson (bass), and Mark Ivester (drums). The band performed in front of a large congregation, close to 200 people, but also an anxious one, gathered together on this first Sunday of the war.

The musical program was chosen accordingly. Pascal's quartet performed McCoy Tyner's "Search for Peace," Pat Metheny's "Question and Answer" and Abdullah Ibrahim's "Water from an Ancient Well." In addition, the setlist included two from underrated, soul-jazz pianist Ray Bryant, whose compositions Ms. Pascal interpreted with an discerning ear for infectious melody and a natural feel for galloping rhythm.

The always lively Greta Matassa served as the quartet's guest vocalist and proved a natural crowd-pleaser. Joining Ms. Pascal and company midway through both sets, Ms. Matassa emboldened a sullen congregation with her rendition of "Something to Live For" and "You Must Believe in Spring."

The acoustics in SFBC's massive sanctuary (first built in 1910, remodeled in 1956 and 1990) are exceptional and especially suited to Ms. Pascal's vibraphone, allowing every bell-like note a full, resonant life before dissolving into the air. Such sonic luxuries were lost on neither audience nor musicians who, with Pascal and Matassa leading the way, gave inspired performances.

I am of the opinion that music is played to be heard, making musician-audience rapport directly proportional to the quality of a musical performance. On that evening, as televised bombs dropped in living rooms throughout the world, music music desperately needed to be heard. Our local musicians humbly obliged, exchanged earnest smiles with the audience between songs, while Ms. Matassa’s humorous quips ("It's been a long time since I've sung in a place this well lit. It's like singing in my shower.") triggered a ripple of rare, honest laughter.

At the conclusion of me first set, a collection plate for the band was passed, and minutes later SFBC’s Coordinating Pastor Dr. Stephen Jones addressed the jazz friendly congregation. His brief sermon was titled "The Sun Shall Shine Again" — not surprising, considering Dr. Jones is new to the precipitous Seattle area, having moved here from Detroit one year ago. He acknowledged the dark clouds hanging over our community and country: a slumping economy, government debt, traffic gridlock, decreased social services and a war he personally considers unnecessary. In specific reference to the fighting in Iraq, Dr. Jones noted that "since the U.S. is not considered to be liberators, but invaders, the world today appears bleak."

Bleak, yes, but not hopeless, as evidenced by a church full of Seattleites seeking peace and salvation with their Lord in heaven or music of McCoy Tyner, Ray Bryant and Pat Metheny.

   ©2023 Susan Pascal