Trading Eights

Bobby Hutcherson: Good Vibes

Issue 147

Given the up-and-coming jazz greats who surrounded him, Bobby Hutcherson was likely to become a musician. While they were growing up in Los Angeles, Hutcherson’s brother was a good friend of saxophonist Dexter Gordon. His sister, a singer, dated saxophonist/clarinetist Eric Dolphy. Despite the proximity of these innovative reed men, Hutcherson made his mark on a much different instrument, the vibraphone, on which he developed a new, pianistic style that was as much about melody as it was about harmony and rhythm.

His first inspiration on vibraphone was Milt Jackson, who showed up on a Miles Davis album and blew the 12-year-old away. Within a few years, Hutcherson had gained enough dexterity and musicianship on his instrument that Dolphy invited him to sit in on his gigs at the jazz club Pandora’s Box. In 1963, bassist Herbie Lewis, a childhood friend who would remain a close collaborator his whole life, helped Hutcherson land a record deal with Blue Note. The vibraphonist remained with that label for the next 15 years.

Every possible manifestation of bebop and its descendants came out of Hutcherson’s four mallets. He loved the avant-garde, always seeming to search for a new sound, another way to use the melodic, chordal, and percussive aspects of his instrument. After a long, stellar career that included appearances on about a hundred albums, Hutcherson died in 2016 at the age of 75.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Bobby Hutcherson.

  1. Track: “Juba Dance”
    Album: Components
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1965

Drummer Joe Chambers wrote half the tracks on this album, while Hutcherson wrote the others. The all-star line-up includes Herbie Hancock on piano and organ, Ron Carter on bass, James Spaulding on alto sax and flute, and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.

“Juba Dance” is one of Chambers’ compositions. “Less is more” is the phrase that comes to mind to describe Hutcherson’s pattern of two syncopated chords per bar, essential yet restrained, leaving plenty of room for Spaulding’s meandering solo.

 

  1. Track: “Matrix”
    Album: Total Eclipse
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1969

This is one of many collaborations between Hutcherson and tenor saxophonist Harold Land, who was best known for his work with the Max Roach/Clifford Brown band and for helping to push bebop into the hard- and post-bop era. Chambers is again on drums, with Chick Corea on piano and Reggie Johnson on bass.

Corea contributed a composition called “Matrix.” Hutcherson and Land play off each other like an old married couple. Listening to Hutcherson’s shimmering, high-speed solo starting at 2:21 is like looking at the northern lights through a kaleidoscope.

 

  1. Track: “Clockwork of the Spirit”
    Album: Head On
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1971

One of the interesting things about the album Head On is the size of its musical forces. Hutcherson assembled an 18-man jazz orchestra with a wide range of sounds, from piccolo to bongos. The original release contained four long tracks, which were increased to seven for the subsequent CD reissue. All but one of the tunes are by pianist Todd Cochran, who also served as the album’s arranger.

The mix of timbres breathes otherworldly life into the track “Clockwork of the Spirit,” with its aching, modal melody.

 

  1. Track: “Anton’s Bail”
    Album: Live at Montreux
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1973

Hutcherson’s style was ideal for live jams, making this recording from the Montreux Jazz Festival a nice treat. He and trumpeter Woody Shaw complement each other’s sound: Hutcherson had a particular approach when doubling a horn line, clearly understanding that his mallets completed a spectrum of texture and frequency that the other instrument couldn’t achieve without this sonic extension.

Hutcherson wrote the album opener, “Anton’s Bail.” His solo is breathtaking, expressive and exploratory.

 

  1. Track: “Yuyo”
    Album: Montara
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1975

For Montara, Hutcherson enters the world of Latin jazz. He takes an easygoing approach, creating one of his most listenable, accessible albums, perfect for those who find post-bop to be a bit much. Playing arrangements by Dale Oehler, the ensemble includes some hard-bop session musicians like trumpeter Blue Mitchell and saxophonist Ernie Watts. But its rhythmic infrastructure is provided by Latin specialist Eddie Cano on piano and a host of great percussionists.

That team puts on a spectacular show for Hutcherson’s composition, “Yuyo.” Warning: You will start dancing, even if you’re sitting down. The vibe solo uses one of Hutcherson’s signature sounds, like machine gun made of bone.

 

  1. Track: “Why Not”
    Album: Knucklebean
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1977

Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist/flutist Hadley Caliman were the special guests on the album Knucklebean. Jazz historians and Hutcherson fans alike consistently call this record an underrated gem.

Over the years, Hutcherson recorded many tunes by pianist George Cables, who was comfortable in many bop-related subgenres. Here, the album-opener “Why Not” is by Cables, who appears on electric keyboard, providing a funky fusion feel.

 

  1. Track: “Secrets of Love (Reprise)”
    Album: Highway One
    Label: Columbia
    Year: 1978

After leaving Blue Note Records after many years, Hutcherson signed with Columbia; Highway One was his debut with the label. George Cables is the primary composer here, and he plays keyboards as part of a group of the usual Hutcherson suspects such as Hubbard and drummer Eddie Marshall.

Special guests on the Cables tune “Secrets of Love (Reprise)” include flutist Hubert Laws and singer Jessica Cleaves. As the title implies, the melody also appears earlier on the album in another form. The first version is only instrumental, but this vocal version demonstrates a rare and fascinating interaction of vibes, Rhodes keyboard, and alto voice.

 

  1. Track: “If I Were a Bell”
    Album: Four Seasons
    Label: Timeless
    Year: 1984

Four Seasons is a quartet album recorded in Holland by Hutcherson, Cables, bassist Herbie Lewis, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. It’s unusual for its repertoire: instead of the usual new compositions, this is a collection of American popular standards by the likes of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, and Cole Porter.

A highlight is “If I Were a Bell,” from Frank Loesser’s score for Guys and Dolls. A tune about bells – what could be more perfect for vibes? Hutcherson’s playing is as retro as the tune, harking back to the earliest days of bebop, when it was still an outgrowth of swing.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brianmcmillen, cropped to fit format.

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