bobby hutcherson, 1941-2016

bobby hutcherson.

bobby hutcherson.

No instrument defines swing and bop’s sense of pervading cool better than the vibraphone. It is the ice cube in the proverbial jazz cocktail, a touch of chill that differs from all other percussive sounds. As a melodic device, it exudes clarity and elegance. To that end, no one played the vibes with more persuasive invention than Bobby Hutcherson. The great instrumentalist and composer died Monday at age 75.
There were giants before him, like Red Norvo, Kentucky’s own Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. There others than came in his wake, like Gary Burton and a legion of new generation stylists that include Stefon Harris. But Hutcherson’s brilliance began in bop with a series of sterling Blue Note albums than spanned a remarkable 12 year period (1963-75), a stretch where artist and label both weathered shifts that steadily urbanized their music.
The early Blue Note records were things of beauty. A personal favorite from that era was 1965’s “Dialogue,” mostly because it showcased Hutcherson’s stylistic restlessness (it was rooted in bop-flavored cool, but would regularly jump off into waltz structures and free-style excursions). A hearty guest list (saxophonist/flutist Sam Rivers, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Andrew Hill) helped, but nothing matched Hutcherson’s gliding beauty when a vibes solo presented itself.
Later albums for the label were hit-and-miss, but early ‘70s collaborations with reed player and flutist Harold Land were standouts recorded just as Blue Note hit the crossroads of jazz and more R&B leaning appeal. The best of those works was 1970’s “San Francisco,” which wonderfully chronicled a stylistic changing of the guard. With a young Joe Sample on piano and electric keyboards, the record embraced groove but kept Hutcherson’s mix of boppish fancy and improvisational prowess in the driver’s seat.
As is often the case with musical artists whose career and performance stamina continue long enough to outlast trends and entire musical eras, Hutcherson settled on a largely traditional sound for his final records. 2007’s aptly titled “For Sentimental Reasons” boasted a repertoire dominated by standards set to the relaxed interplay of a quartet. But the exchanges between Hutcherson, sounding lighter and more fanciful than ever, and pianist Renee Rosnes sit at recording’s luscious core.
All three records should be considered essential listening for anyone intrigued by, but unfamiliar with, Hutcherson’s music.
“When you become involved with jazz, you’ve already received your reward,” Hutcherson told me in an interview prior to a Louisville concert with the SF Jazz Collective in 2005. “The thrill comes from being inside this world of music, of being tossed around inside the moment.”



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