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Joe Chambers, Horace to the Max

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Here is another vintage jazz musician with a new disc featuring the vibes, but Joe Chambers is known primarily as a drummer. Fair enough, as he is an outstanding drummer, but Horace to the Max featuring heaping doses of his outstanding work on vibes and also marimba (a close cousin to the vibes using wooden bars).

This disc pays tribute to Max Roach and Horace Silver, of course, but also includes tunes by Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, Marcus Miller, and Chambers himself. The band, however, is up to date (pianist Xavier Davis, Eric Alexander on tenor, Steve Berrios on percussion), and it converts old classic such as “Evidence” and “Ecaroh” into something new—thanks for Chambers unique and percussive approach to the mallets.

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Joe Chambers

Horace to the Max

(Savant; US: 20 Apr 2010; UK: 26 Apr 2010)

“Water Babies”, for example, pairs saxophone and vibes in the front line, giving the whole tune a popping sense of polyrhythm. “Portia” contains rippling vibes and marimba in overdubbed layers, while Roach’s “Lonesome Lover” places the vibes squarely into a rhythm section arrangement beneath Nicole Guiland’s vocal.

Best of all, naturally, is Chambers’ own “Afreeka”, which gives the leader a chance to set up a burbling ground rhythm on both of his mallet instruments at once in dialogue with Berrios on hand percussion. Not that Chambers doesn’t take advantage of the melodic aspects of the vibes (“Ecaroh”), but he is a player who naturally sees rhythm in everything. Horace to the Max is a wonderful statement from a musician who isn’t a household name. Too bad.

The Claudia Quintet +1, What Is the Beautiful?

John Hollenbeck is also a drummer. He doesn’t play the vibes, but his Claudia Quintet uses the vibes in a wonderfully orchestral way. The band’s latest, What Is the Beautiful? is an astonishing new record that sets the poetry of Kenneth Patchen to music. Featuring Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann’s voices, these tunes take a dozen radically different approaches, requiring the musicians to create many different moods and grooves.

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The Claudia Quintet +1

What is the Beautiful?

(Cuneform; US: 11 Oct 2011; UK: 10 Oct 2011)

Matt Moran is the vibraphonist here, and he works as a fully integrated part of the ensemble at all times. On “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground”, for example, Moran enters the tune very quietly just as the first vocal statement is ending. Ted Reichman’s accordion takes on the melody, but Moran begins playing arpeggios that run with the groove and rise up out of it at the same time. On the title track, by contrast, Moran generates a pulsing throb that sit beneath the rest of the band, giving the track a bed of woozy harmony.

Claudia doesn’t do a whole lot of standard jazz improvising, but the vibes are proven again and again to be useful in creating feelings that go beyond “jazz”. On “Flock”, the rippling patterns of the whole band sound like a cross between Glassian minimalism (with looping, repeating patterns) and avant-garde jazz. Ironically, this is a tune where Moran seems to be given some reign to simply play what he feels, at least for a while. But the tune ends with the cycles of patterns on different instruments coming together to a thrilling focal point.

Erik Charlston JazzBrasil , Essentially Hermeto

Finally, it’s worth ending with a vibes player who is largely unknown among jazz listeners, despite his wide-ranging credits. Erik Charlston heads the percussion department at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, and he has credits with just about everyone in both classical and jazz circles.

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Eric Charlston JazzBrasil

Essentially Hermeto

(Sunnyside; US: 8 Nov 2011; UK: 8 Nov 2011)

Here, he is fronting a very genial band (featuring Ted Nash on reeds) playing Brazilian jazz in a sunny mode that is “easy” enough to remind some listeners of early Spyro-Gyra but busy and interesting enough to hold a listener’s interest for it’s full program. Playing the tunes of Hermeto Pascoal, Charlston using the virtuosic side of the vibraphone to great effect. When played well, the vibes produce a sound of great precision and clarity, and Charlston runs his skill across these tunes with abandon.

“Frevo Rasgado”, for example, lets the leader play a very tricky (and, well, Burton-esque) duet with pianist Mark Soskin, generating all he rhythmic and harmonic a tune requires with one instrument. The bouncing syncopations for Brazilian music are articulating perfectly by this approach.

From the impressionistic to the precise, from the prettiest music you can imagine to the most darkly intriguing, this strange, largely unknown instrument can get it done. Now is the time in jazz for a the vibraphone to stand tall. At a time when jazz could be going just about anywhere, the least likely of instruments seems to be getting it there.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.

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