Sympathetic Vibrations

There's a renaissance for the vibraphone in jazz, even though many folks don't even know this instrument exists.

Most people don’t know what a vibraphone is. Why should they? The vibraphone (sometimes called a vibraharp and more often just called “the vibes”) is a niche taste. Classical music has no role for it, and in pop music it once flavored a batch of Motown hits, but that’s it. The obscure theremin, with its leading role in hit songs like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, is probably better known.

Except in jazz.

Beginning with Lionel Hampton in the '30s, the vibes have been a special jazz voice. The instrument consists of 37 aluminum bars that sound three octaves from the F below middle C. Each bar is paired with a resonator tube with a motor-driven valve that flutters and creates a tremolo sound. The result is a shimmering beauty from what is essentially a percussion instrument, with the player striking the bars with felt covered mallets. In most other kinds of music, I guess, the vibes sound like a novelty or are easily trampled.

In jazz, however, the percussive attack combines with lyrical beauty, creating something close to logical genius. Only in jazz has the instrument produced virtuosos: Hampton, Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, a few others. But even in jazz, the lineage and use of the instrument is somewhat limited. A few of the great big bands used vibes, but most did not. The legendary small groups, from the Armstrong Hot Seven to the Miles Davis Quintet to the Art Ensemble of Chicago are wholly vibes-free.

In fact, the success of the instrument has largely been attributable to a handful of great players who made their sound and their ideas impossible to ignore. Hampton started as a drummer but became the instrument’s great ambassador, bringing the sound to recordings by Armstrong, then the Benny Goodman bands and finally his own furiously swinging big band. Milt Jackson preached the instrument’s lyricism and it’s ability to swing a great blues from the pulpit of the Modern Jazz Quartet and then in scores of classic dates with the likes of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. Bobby Hutcherson made the instrument an ideal vehicle for more open-ended playing, and Gary Burton invented new ways to play it while also giving it a new sound—one that allowed for folk and rock sounds into his conception.

Times are particularly good for the vibes in jazz right now. The instrument has benefitted from the creativity and openness of the serious jazz scene—it seems like more bands of all kinds might feature vibes. And there is no shortage of interesting young players. The shimmery ring of vibrating aluminum: she rises again.

Artist: Chris Dingman

Album: Waking Dreams

Label: Between Worlds

US Release Date: 2011-06-21

UK Release Date: 2011-06-21

Image: Dingman, Waking Dreams

One of the most enjoyable and worthy jazz recordings of 2011 has been a debut from vibraphonist Chris Dingman. My ears were hooked on Dingman because of his playing in the quintet of alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, and particularly on Lehman’s boldly beautiful Travail, Transformation, and Flow (2009). On that fascinating record, Lehman used the special attacks, decays and overtones of various instruments to create jazz compositions based around “spectral harmony”.

Using vibes on that record was crucial: no other instrument gives off such a haunting shimmer of overtones while still working to strong rhythmic effect. Dingman is certainly a player who can work across the whole spectrum of his instrument.

Waking Dreams is a beautifully composed collection, both a set of modern jazz themes in the post-bop tradition and and more ambitious tone poem that uses the orchestral possibilities of small-group jazz.

Most particularly, Waking Dreams is an effective imagining of the singular role that the vibes can play in a classic modern jazz group. Dingman’s band is mostly a sextet: trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums—plus his vibraphone. A band like this could be a jazz quintet “plus one”, but it’s better. Dingman, through his arrangements and writing, integrates his instrument into the band, making himself considerably more than just another saxophone or an alternative to the piano.

For example, in the exquisite tune “Indian Hill”, Dingman plays the initial theme but also works as an accompanist in gorgeous tandem with pianist Fabian Almazan, giving the melody up to Loren Stillman on a snaking-pretty soprano saxophone. No long solos: just a shimmering statement of beauty. Dingman also wisely mixes Almazan’s duties so that he plays Fender Rhodes electric piano some, creating even more complex blending with the vibes. On “Waking Dreams”, the two instruments go into some duet counterpoint that ought to be copied in plenty of other bands.

Dig also the textures on “Same Coin”, where flute and bass clarinet provide a gauzy contrast to the metallic ring of the vibes. But it’s not all impressionism here, as the assertive “Jet Lag” proves, with Fender Rhodes and vibes sounding modern in the vein of the 1960s Miles Davis quintet, and with hot trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere riding atop the pulse to help cement that sensation.

Chris Dingman is making the vibraphone an all-season instrument on Waking Dreams.

Artist: The New Gary Burton Quartet

Album: Common Ground

Label: Mack Avenue

US Release Date: 2011-06-07

UK Release Date: 2011-07-04

Image: New Gary Burton Quartet, Common Ground

If the vibes had a crucial voice during the '70s and that decade’s jazz-rock era, then it was that of Gary Burton. Burton famously hired some of that period’s best guitar players (Pat Metheny, most famously, but also Larry Coryell, John Scofield, and Mick Goodrick) to collaborate with him in crafting a band sound that harnessed relatively simpler harmonies to expressive melody and sounded fresh. Though Burton’s technique on vibes is busy (four mallets rather than two, most plainly, with a penchant for filigree), his bands sound like they are channeling The Beatles as much as Dizzy Gillespie. His own sound has a cascading crispness that brings to mind folk music as easily as jazz.

Best of all, Burton has now been making great records for fifty years, and they don’t contain even the least whiff of crustiness or nostalgia about them. His most recent, Common Ground is his tastiest offering in recent memory. It’s not so much something new as it is a fresh reimagining of Burton’s best stuff.

This “New Quartet” features guitarist Julian Lage, who first played with Burton when he was a teenager but who now has a fully mature sound and imagination. Lage plays electric guitar with minimal amplification, sounding both “clean” and highly percussive, with a plucking sound as part of his identity. Burton’s rippling bell-tones combine with Lage in a fully satisfying way. Their unison runs on the title track, for example, have roller-coaster zing, and as each accompanies the other it is like seeing a bright red splash of paint settle onto a sky-blue canvas. The opening to “Last Snow” is another example: just the guitar and vibes together, calm and pastoral in all the feelings they summon but hip too in the way that each musician phrases differently but as complement to the other.

The rest of this quartet is just as good. Burton has chosen to work with acoustic bass this time out (not always his choice), and Scot Colley provides another distinctly human sound to the band: rich and woody and pungent in the moments where he pops through the arrangements. The drummer is Antonio Sanchez, who keeps things melodic and subtle but also highly polyrhythmic. Sanchez plays the textures well, but he can kick things into overdrive as necessary.

The zippy-fast swinger “Did You Get It?” sounds like it features at least two drummers, but—nope—it’s just two hands and two feet. But this is what Burton sets up with this band: four mallets, four limbs flying on drums, which adds up to a whole lot of carefully placed percussion. That, after all, is the family of instruments into which the vibes firmly fit.

The brilliance of Burton and his band concept comes home most clearly, perhaps, on two tracks that are designed to remind the listener of the past. First, there's a spectacular new arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” that features a long Lage introduction that leads to a medium-ballad tempo for Burton that sashays rather than mopes. The collection closes with a tune from Burton’s old book, Keith Jarrett’s “In Your Quiet Place”, which gives Lage the chance to really dig in and bend his strings like he was a blues player, even as he continues to tap dance around the harmonies with great skill. As Burton “chimes” in that distinctive way that only his instrument can, the band provides a perfect, vinegary contrast.

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