[20 August 2007]
When jazz musicians “mellow with age” it doesn’t often serve them well. If jazz is often seen as an innovators’ art, then settling into old habits and relying on a lifetime’s accumulated skills can look a whole lot like a falling off. In any art, it might be said, a great artist’s greatest work tends to come early.
Bobby Hutcherson’s early work certainly had the snap and fire of the new. His instrument, the vibraharp, is essentially a set of tubular bells that lend themselves to “mere beauty”. While Lionel Hampton played them with fire and Milt Jackson gave them the jazz-drenched blues, it remained that most vibes players were denizens of the lounge, playing pretty and mild for cocktails. Bobby Hutcherson, emerging in the 1960s with the likes of Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill, brought angularity and dissonance to his instrument. Playing on brilliant Blue Note dates such as Out to Lunch and Point of Departure, Hutcherson brought open spaces and freedom to the music. His own records, such as Dialogue featuring Sam Rivers, helped to open up the inside / outside vocabulary of post-bop jazz, incorporating free elements without ever forsaking swing.
By the 1970s, though, Hutcherson, just in his 30s and hardly over the hill, had largely retreated to more conventional jazz playing. A reason to lament? It was hard to suppress some excitement seeing his name on a label, yet was his presence still a thing of discovery and excitement?
For Sentimental Reasons is a standards-only studio date from Hutcherson’s current working quartet, and there is every reason to ready your hand in preparation for a yawn. All the songs are ballads or love songs. The talent is established. The playing will be impeccable. Get out the cocktail shaker?
Yet this date turns out to be something special.
Yes, we’ve all heard this kind of jazz before—even the song selections. But there is something about a working band of great musicians playing jazz, even in a familiar idiom on warhorse tunes. These musicians, Hutcherson, Renee Rosnes on piano, Dwayne Burro on bass, and the great Al Foster on drums, are improvisers of the first order. And, in the grand jazz tradition, they make these songs new again. They breathe fresh life into them by committing to playing them with genuine care for their melodies, lyrics, and forms. This record, in short, sounds like one of those great old records that just happens not to be old at all.
There are a few true ballads that are invincibly sad and real. “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life” is a song that used to get played more often, recorded by Streisand and Sinatra, among others. The lyrics (“I want to see your face in every kind of light / In the fields of dawn and the forests of the night”) are not about teen-aged love but, rather, the real thing –- that which takes some actual life to understand and care about. And Hutcherson and Rosnes take their precious time in winding through the crannies of Michel LeGrand’s melody. They craft twists and turns through the chords that make the song seem as bitter and wonderful as any marriage. And that is the point, right? Bernstein’s “Somewhere” is played dead-slow by only the leader and his pianist. As was originally intended, it becomes a kind of hymn to hope and naiveté, with not a single “improvised” note but a complete sense of interpretive feeling.
Other songs swing at medium tempo, giving Burro and Foster a handy role in the proceedings. “Don’t Blame Me” is typically played very slowly, but the band gives it a driving mid-tempo treatment here. But from the start, Hutcherson chooses melody notes that pleasingly surprise—each phrase seems to start somewhere interesting. Rosnes accompanies like a mind-reader, but her solo is even better. She never plays like a lazy musician who can get away with mere taste. Her solo here is pure invention, even though it never veers toward dissonance.
The album ends with something rare: a performance for solo vibraphone, a version of “I’ll Be Seeing You”. Hutcherson seems aware of the emotional power of the song—a Sammy Fain melody from 1938 that was much-played and thought about during World War Two. A painful song about being apart, Hutcherson assays it with ringing grace but nary a touch of schmaltz or pretense. He is surely equally aware that the tune was once considered Liberace’s theme, and so Bobby avoids all flourish in favor of simple theme.
This focus on tune helps along Waller’s often baroque “Jitterbug Waltz” as well, and it is in evidence when the band plays the over-familiar “Embraceable You” too. The latter tune is given a reworking in its middle section that is original and beautiful, leading into a Rosnes solo that respects silence in a Miles-ian way. She sculpts the solo the same way she would compose an original melody.
By the conclusion of For Sentimental Reasons, you may have your view of straight-ahead jazz, and certainly of Bobby Hutcherson, transformed. Jazz need not always be breaking new ground, and Mr. Hutcherson is much more than an artist who made the vibes into something weird. Both the art form and this artist have a kind of classical stature today. They can as easily reach backward as they can forward, and any direction may be fruitful.
In this case, the art is easily described as “timeless”—a notion only clichéd if the music does not deserve it. For Sentimental Reasons earns a fresh ear.