I was asked to recommend some good vibes albums. I swallowed the bait, though it has taken a while to haul in the net. So here is a year’s worth of music featuring that unusual member of the percussion family, the vibraphone.
For those unfamiliar with the instrument that Australian jazz legend John Sangster called his ‘steam table’, it consists of a series of tuned metal bars (similar to a toy xylophone, but bigger) under which hang resonating tubes. Add in a sustain pedal (just like a piano) and you have a sound that hangs in the air for several seconds. There is also a valve that produces vibrato (hence the name), augmenting the bell like tones. Vibes are played with padded mallets, either one or two pairs.
Although best known as a jazz instrument, many ‘classical’ composers—from Benjamin Britten to Steve Reich—have written pieces featuring the vibraphone.
Off we go, then.
Lionel Hampton / Stan Getz — Hamp and Getz (1955)
The veteran swing era band leader joined up with “cool” young tenor player Stan Getz for a sprightly and companionable record. This small group jumps, in no small part thanks to the rhythm section of Shelly Manne on drums, Leroy Vinegar on bass and pianist Lou Levy. There is some lovely playing on the ballads, but for mine the standout is the opening track, “Cherokee”, which rockets along flashing the solo spotlight between Hamp, Getz and pianist Levy. Makes you dance and smile.
Modern Jazz Quartet — Pyramid (1960)
An MJQ favourite from their enormous catalogue. The quartet made elegant modern jazz, featuring vibes legend Milt Jackson and pianist/composer John Lewis. Many of Lewis’s compositions became standards, and there are two classics here: the opening tune “Vendome” and “Django”. I love the title track, a slow blues by legendary bass player Ray Brown and also the lovely version of guitarist Jim Hall’s “Romaine”. Throw in a couple of standards and you have a very satisfying album. A fine intro to the MJQ’s elegant chamber jazz and the vibraphone artistry of Milt Jackson.
Milt Jackson / John Coltrane — Bags and Trane (1961)
The MJQ were were hugely popular in the 1950s, a regard that travelled with them into the new decade. This pairing with John Coltrane is not as odd as it might seem; ‘Trane was versatile and Milt one of the most highly regarded soloists in jazz. They dance beautifully together. I particularly like the jumping rhythms and lightning interplay on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Be-Bop” (propelled by marvellous bass playing from Paul Chambers) while for those who enjoy ballads, the pensive “The Night We Called It A Day” is great too.
The 1988 CD release has three ‘bonus’ tracks (including Jackson’s marvellously loping “Blues Legacy”), adding a generous 20 minutes to the album’s running time.
Cal Tjader — Several Shades Of Jade (1963) / Breeze From The East (1964)
One of the challenges of navigating jazz is the plethora of sub-genres and styles. Cal Tjader was a West Coast musician who became synonymous with Latin jazz. Although Trader tends to sit at the lounge/easy listening end of the spectrum, his music is charming and very accessible. Pictured is a great value two-fer CD that will delight fans of accessible, easy listening cocktail jazz. And Cal plays vibes very well indeed.
Eric Dolphy — Out To Lunch (1964)
The vibes player here is Bobby Hutcherson (see next album) who joins in the fireworks of this avant-garde treat from leader Eric Dolphy. Dolphy wrote the five pieces, which are certainly ‘out there’ in terms of adventurous, often testing jazz. Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes are a vital part of the sound, especially in the absence of a piano; try the upbeat psychotic noir detective “Gazzelloni” for a taste. But everyone is brilliant here: nineteen-year-old drummer Tony Williams, Richard Davis on bass and Dolphy playing sax, flue and bass clarinet. Amongst the fiery dissonance and acrobatic harmonic leaps are moments of magic, meaning that while not an ideal jazz entry point, this album is famous for good reason.
Bobby Hutcherson — Happenings (1966)
Bobby Hutcherson was enormously influential in pushing vibes beyond chiming pleasantries (Out To Lunch is the incontrovertible evidence). This album features Herbie Hancock and a great rhythm section comprising Bob Cranshaw on bass and Joe Chambers on drums. Opening piece “Aquarian Moon” is suitably 1967, with lots of variety and a whiff of incense, while it’s always great hearing Hancock’s classic “Maiden Voyage”. By the end the hippy vibe has been banished with the experimental spookiness of “The Omen”. Really great album.
In the part two we’ll get a bit funky, and hear from the most significant living vibist.