Sympathetic Vibrations

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.

Joe Chambers, Horace to the Max

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.

Artist: Joe Chambers

Album: Horace to the Max

Label: Savant

US Release Date: 2010-04-20

UK Release Date: 2010-04-26

Image:“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.

Artist: The Claudia Quintet +1

Album: What is the Beautiful?

Label: Cuneform

US Release Date: 2011-10-11

UK Release Date: 2011-10-10

Image: 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.

Artist: Eric Charlston JazzBrasil

Album: Essentially Hermeto

Label: Sunnyside

US Release Date: 2011-11-08

UK Release Date: 2011-11-08

Image:, 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.