Susan Pascal: Open to Change


Susan Pascal photo by Daniel Sheehan


To call vibraphonist Susan Pascal’s music room a music room is an understatement.

Sound-absorbing panels line the walls for pristine acoustics. Across the room from Pascal’s vibraphone sit a drum kit and baby grand piano to accommodate full-band rehearsals. And the room is climate-controlled—70 degrees Fahrenheit, 50 percent relative humidity—to ensure that the piano stays in tune. 

“It’s like rehearsing in a professional studio or something,” says pianist Bill Anschell of his longtime bandmate’s West Seattle workspace, located in the home she shares with her husband, bassist Dave Pascal. According to Anschell, who first played with Pascal not long after moving to Seattle in 2002, such meticulousness is her trademark. “I remember being immediately struck by how well-organized and interesting her book was. She just put it together in a way where it’s not hard to sight read, and the tunes are really cool.”  

“She would always send us PDFs in advance,” he recalls. “Send us recordings to use as references so you can practice along with the recording when you look at the chart. And she is almost mistake-proof over the twenty-some years I’ve known her. If she hands you a chart, it’s going to be correct. If you don’t play it right, it’s not her fault.”

A percussionist since elementary school, the Shoreline native initially intended to specialize in classical music, but a revelatory encounter with the Gary Burton and Chick Corea album Crystal Silence, released when Pascal was a senior in high school, opened her ears to the expressive potential of jazz. “That was a life-changing moment because I realized what one could create with just those two instruments,” she remembers. 

Early in her career, she created her own opportunities, offering her services to bands that had put out requests for pianists, keyboardists, or guitarists. She toured the nation with one such act: the eclectic folk ensemble Banish Misfortune, whom she credits with teaching her the practical side of the business, from reading contracts to the art of pacing a concert to holding an audience’s interest. Later, she enjoyed a lengthy tenure as a member of the Jazz Police big band and carved out a niche as a contributor to movie soundtracks from Office Space to The Wedding Planner and The Blind Side.

Though Pascal has never recorded an album as a bandleader, she has long made her mark as a sensitive interpreter. A 2015 KNKX live-in-studio performance with her quartet, available on YouTube, captures her elegant way with a song. Her delicate, shimmering version of Mike Stern’s ballad “All Heart,” teases out the melody’s contemplative heart, while her take on Pat Metheny’s grooving “Double Guatemala” is all slinky lope, replacing the bite of Metheny’s guitar with the chime of her vibes.

Pascal has also earned a reputation as one of Seattle’s foremost advocates for her instrument. Alongside regular collaborators like Anschell, drummer Mark Ivester, guitarist Brian Monroney, and the late bassist Chuck Deardorf, Pascal devised a series of tributes to legendary vibraphonists, putting her own stamp on Cal Tjader’s vibrant Latin jazz in her Soul Sauce project, and exploring Milt Jackson’s collaboration with master guitarist Wes Montgomery, among others. 

Such efforts exemplify Pascal’s dedication to the creative possibilities of the jazz interpretive tradition. “I’ve talked with her for years about, you know, whether she was going to do any writing herself,” says singer Greta Matassa, Pascal’s dear friend. “I think she feels the same way I feel, and that is: that if you’re an improviser, in a sense, you are a writer. You know, you’re not necessarily making up your own compositions, but you’re reinterpreting a piece of music every time you play.”

For a while, however, Pascal fell silent. Rocked by the 2019 closure of her home base, Tula’s, the illness and death of a close family member, and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, she considered herself all but retired.

“There were presenters or band leaders who would approach me to play, and for the first time ever, I had to say ‘no, I can’t do this right now,’” she remembers. “And that was extremely hard.”

Pascal credits Matassa’s example with inspiring her to pursue music again. “She just kept going during the pandemic, kept producing,” Pascal says. “When nobody was getting together, she would do these Zoom concerts from her living room…she’s a force of nature to be sure.”

When Pascal texted to congratulate Matassa on the success of her live streams, “That’s when she jumped in and said, ‘Hey, you know, let’s have you play. When do you want to play?’ She invited me to start playing and it’s hard to get back. Because if you don’t use it, you lose it. So, I’m really grateful to her for getting me back into it.”

Following a series of guest spots with Matassa’s band, Pascal worked in earnest to revive her career, reuniting her quartet, and, last December, debuting a new duo with pianist Francesco Crosara.

Speaking to Earshot Jazz late on a Tuesday afternoon in early February, an ebullient Pascal seemed reinvigorated in the wake of a hectic week, bookended by a performance at the grand opening of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship’s new Pioneer Square home and a trip to Whidbey Island to play with bassist Clipper Anderson and flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny at Ott & Hunter winery. She noted the musical sophistication of what she termed “listening rooms.” 

“These are venues that are concentrating on creating a listening environment for people who love the music,” she says. “It’s not background. It’s really made for appreciation.”

Highlights of a busy March include a rare out-of-state performance in Half Moon Bay, Califiornia, at the storied Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society club, as part of a quartet of vibraphonists convened by Cal Tjader alum Roger Glenn, and, at month’s end, a residency at the Seattle Jazz Fellowship with her quartet. 

Inspired by the “listening room” surroundings, and spurred on by the Fellowship’s strict “no tributes” policy, the consummate interpreter has even begun to explore composing her own material.

“There are so many more opportunities now to offer original music that is welcomed by the community,” she says. “I’ve got a really huge book of things that were established with a particular band, and that band, you know…like Chuck was a part of that, and he’s not with us any longer. And what that’s done is forced me to open to change. There’s a lot of great talent in Seattle. And so I’m opening to it.”



Posted on

February 29, 2024