I must confess to a certain bias here. To me, there are no more evocative sounds in jazz than the vibes and the Hammond organ. Since this album’s success depends to no little extent on how you respond to veteran Terry Gibbs’s vibraphone sound and its interplay with current favourite Joey DeFrancesco’s keyboard skills, then I was, inevitably, won over by about the sixth chord. Less hypnotised souls will perhaps assess this album in terms of its more obvious components—its success as a tribute to Lionel Hampton, its status as good-time “Swing Reunion” session, and its generous helping of more mellow and mid-tempo, blues-inflected numbers.
I have to say that the “Swing Reunion” bit (and more especially Gibbs’s “jazz” vocals) leaves me completely cold. Perfectly reasonable as part of the tribute element, but too brash and forced for my liking, all the uptempo numbers lack the power and sense of drive of the Hampton originals. Too much like an amateur Trad session to make any real sense, I’d ignore these altogether and hunt out a Hampton swing-era set. In fact, as a tribute album as a whole From Me to You is somewhat hit and miss. The most difficult side of Gibbs to take is the much-stressed fact that, like Hampton, he is a great showman. This may come across on stage but I find his relentless “up-ness” a bit gauche and irritating. Yes, it’s nice to hear someone so obviously enjoying the music but the clowning around (musically and vocally) wears very thin (“Ring Dem Bells” and “Hey-Bop-Ba-Re-Bop” are the worst offenders). Swing in that joyous sense perhaps belongs to a different era and should be left in situ. The tunes are either ones associated with Hampton or specially composed tributes, but the sound does not really conjure up the great bands of California’s first genius of jazz.
That said, Gibbs’s credentials for the project are impeccable. Now in his eighth decade and once the best known vibes player apart from Hampton himself, he has a jazz pedigree that has merited a recent autobiography, and his playing strengths show no signs of wear and tear. A veteran of Dorsey, Hermann, and Goodman orchestras, as well as being known to millions of Americans through his appearances on the Steve Allen Show (he was musical director), he came to prominence as a swing musician who took on some of the innovations of be-bop. If vibes tradition divides between Lionel Hampton’s expansiveness and Milt Jackson’s MJQ cool, then Gibbs was and remains a Hampton man.
Yet just as there was always so much more to Hampton than bravado exhibitionism, Gibbs too is a player of real depth and range. The album opens with “Midnight Sun”, always a favourite, and Gibbs, DeFrancesco, and guitarist Anthony Wilson deliver it with a fluidity and mellow grace that is a match for any earlier readings. The self-penned “Blues for Hamp” is worthy of any ‘40s Central Avenue after-hours jam and Pete Christlieb on tenor sax makes the most of his Arnett Cobb-ish moment. Equally stirring is an old school reading of “Moonglow”, with sax-man Jeff Hamilton in lazy, easy-living mode. On all these numbers, Gibbs is assured and buoyant and DeFrancesco the most telling of accompanists.
“Sunny Side of the Street” is let down by the vocals, as is the Dinah Washington breakthrough song, “Evil Gal Blues” (Barbara Morrison does her best, but another period piece, I think). In between, though, comes “From Me to You”, which displays the full richness of Gibbs’s artistry. As a tribute from one practitioner to another, it can hardly be faulted, and with Francesco at his most minimal but inventive is a highlight to offset any doubts I have about the more “exuberant” material. One extra gem is the nod to Gibbs’s bebop influences in the form of “Red Top”, itself a timely reminder of Hampton’s own role in that revolution. A great ensemble piece, it features Gibbs’s most adroit runs and a tasty bass solo from Dave Carpenter.
Much to relish on this set then, despite reservations about the livelier numbers. The musicians are all solid, Gibbs is a player of great panache and style, and these are very good tunes. I don’t think you’ll learn too much about Lionel Hampton, whose contribution to jazz and rhythm ‘n’ blues is still woefully under-estimated. You will learn enough about Terry Gibbs to want to hear more of him, in ballad or modernist modes for preference, and as for Joey DeFrancesco, well, he can just do no wrong at the moment.