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Jazz Vibes

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In recent years I have developed something of a ‘thing’ about the vibraphone in jazz, not quite a passion, but certainly a quiet enthusiasm. There was a period in the 1990s and early 2000s when the vibes seemed to become very low profile in jazz, but recently a number of interesting young players, such as Chris Dingman and Jason Adasiewicz in the USA, and Jim Hart and Lewis Wright in the UK, have brought the instrument back into prominence. So I am really pleased that at this year’s Jazz Festival, we present both Gary Burton, one of the true pioneers of the instrument, and Jason Adasiewicz, for me the most exciting and innovative of the young vibraphone players.

The initial use of the vibes was as an additional percussion instrument in vaudeville bands providing novelty effects. But very rapidly the vibes became almost exclusively a jazz instrument. Its use in jazz was pioneered by Paul Barbarin, a drummer and percussionist, who recorded in the 1920s with Henry Red Allen and Louis Armstrong. But it was Lionel Hampton, originally a drummer, who really established the vibes as a major jazz instrument. He recorded on vibes as early as 1930 and led both small groups and a renowned big band from the vibes throughout his career. Other great vibes players include Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Locke.

Hampton mostly used just two mallets and played essentially as a member of the front line without contributing to the accompaniment for the other front line players. The four mallet approach in which the player holds in each hand one mallet between the thumb and index finger and the other between the index and the middle fingers, was developed by Gary Burton and is referred to as the Burton Technique. This technique enabled him to develop a much more pianistic approach to the vibes and this innovative approach became the dominant influence on later vibes players.

Gary Burton was very influential in the way he blended jazz with other genres of music, notably rock and country music, in what became known as fusion jazz. He was also important in the development of the duo format in jazz, particularly with pianist Chick Corea. Burton, now in his 70s, remains a true jazz legend winning a 2013 Grammy for best jazz solo, and it is amazing that we can hear him on the first date of an extensive European tour with his quartet.

Jason Adasiewicz is part of the vibrant Chicago improvised music scene; he’s in his 30s and was originally a drummer. His approach to the vibes is much more percussive than that of Gary Burton’s; he hits the vibes hard and is very concerned with achieving an overall integrated sound for the Sun Rooms trio he works in. He takes advantage of both the chordal and the harmonic possibilities of the vibes and the flexibility of the instrument to create a style that draws on the whole history of both jazz itself and the role of the vibes in jazz. But above all he creates a wonderful, wide-ranging dynamic in his playing and in his interaction with the bass and drums in the Sun Rooms trio that hasn’t always been there in other vibes players. The Sun Rooms trio is above all an exciting live band.

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