The challenge with unorthodox instruments is that they tend to be tightly bound to a certain time and place. The clarinet dominated the swinging jazz of the 1930s, thanks to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, but it’s never recovered from that association. The vibraphone, with its mysterious, watery, ringing sound, might have faced a similar fate. Popularized by Lionel Hampton in the ’30s and ’40s, and brought into the bebop era by Milt Jackson, what role could it serve in the harder-edged jazz of the 1960s and beyond?
One of the two men who answered that question, and rescued the vibes from obscurity, was Bobby Hutcherson, who died Monday at 75. (Fortunately, the other guy, Gary Burton, is still going strong.) Nate Chinen writes in a New York Times obituary:
Mr. Hutcherson’s career took flight in the early 1960s, as jazz was slipping free of the complex harmonic and rhythmic designs of bebop. He was fluent in that language, but he was also one of the first to adapt his instrument to a freer postbop language, often playing chords with a pair of mallets in each hand….Mr. Hutcherson had a clear, ringing sound, but his style was luminescent and coolly fluid; more than Milt Jackson or Lionel Hampton, his major predecessors on the vibraphone, he made an art out of resonating overtones and chiming decay.
Hutcherson had a long and productive career, but he’s best remembered for his stint recording for Blue Note Records, as both a sideman and leader, in the ’60s. Hutcherson was one of a crop of players at the label who were able to shift seamlessly between greasy, gritty soul jazz and the thorny, challenging avant-garde—sometimes in the course of an album, or even within the course of a single song. Hank Shteamer flags a resolutely industrial passage on Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” (eat your heart out, Lou Reed), but Hutch could also swing right through a straightforward reading of a tune like “Django,” a showcase for his forerunner Milt Jackson with the Modern Jazz Quartet. In Hutcherson’s hands, the vibes never sounded archaic, quaint, or brittle.
Here’s “Catta,” the first track from Dialogues, his stellar first record as a leader, in 1965:
Dialogues is stacked, with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Sam Rivers, the rhythm section of Joe Chambers and Richard Davis, and pianist Andrew Hill, who wrote most of the tunes. “Catta” is perhaps the most easily accessible track. It’s a rhythmic masterpiece—a Latin groove in 8/4, where Hutcherson, Hill, Chambers, and Davis, plus the horn section, are all drafted into percussive duty. Hill and Hutcherson’s feverish, interlocked playing during the vibe solo (starting around 4:10 or so) is mesmerizing.