Four West Coast Vibes Greats, Four Great Albums
Four West Coast Vibraphone Greats, Four Great Albums
I’m starting a new weekly blog to talk about the vibes: players, important albums, concepts. For this month of April, I’d like to start by discussing four first-rate West Coast vibraphonists: Victor Feldman, Terry Gibbs, Charlie Shoemake, and Bobby Hutcherson. I’ll pick one great album from each artist’s discography, and talk about why I think it’s happening. I hope you’ll check out the player and the record (if you haven’t already), and chime in with your thoughts!
This week, I’d like to start with Terry Gibbs, and his eponymously titled record from 1956 (“Terry Gibbs”), featuring female pianist Terry Pollard, who Gibbs had a very close connection with, both on and off the bandstand.
This session documents Gibbs at the height of his swinging, bebop-charged powers. Gibbs always had great chops, and looked to emulate the bop giants who were not only his heroes, but also his peers: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, to name a few. This record is also significant because it lays to rest any lingering, sexist notion that “women can’t swing.” Terry Pollard swings as hard as any bop pianist of the era, and harder than most. It’s evident from this recording why Gibbs held the Detroit native, who he rescued from obscurity and turned into a minor star (albeit briefly), in such high musical esteem. Pollard’s muscular, facile playing brings out the best in Gibbs’ flashy, two-mallet style.
Be sure to check out this video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8z6fwq4ZSE
The video starts with a tune called “Gibberish” (performed on The Tonight Show in 1956), and continues with Gibbs and Pollard dueling on vibes: This was Gibbs’ classic shtick, a staple of showmanship in his live performances that “pitted him in battle” against his pianist. Check it out, Pollard can really play the vibes! He did it with various players who came through his band, but the most entertaining incarnation featured Pollard, who managed to get around the vibraphone with uncanny ease.
The first track on "Terry Gibbs," the 1956 recording date, is “Seven Come Eleven,” a rhythm changes romp that features great solos by both Gibbs and Pollard. After a short but sweet ballad, “Lonely Dreams,” during which Gibbs liberally cranks the vibrato, the record continues with “Dickie’s Dream,” a minor rhythm changes swinger, a la Parker’s “Segment.” Pollard opens with some tasty, minimalistic lines. Gibbs continues with a very swinging master class in time and bop language. Check out what a nice, clean tone he gets throughout the instrument, and the pristine articulation of his lines. Aspiring vibes players, this would be a great one to transcribe and learn! Pollard returns, sounding like a combination of Horace Silver, Bud Powell and Hampton Hawes.
After this, it’s back to the ballad vibe, with a thoughtful rendition of “Imagination.” One could argue that Gibbs “plays a lot of notes” on this track, but this wasn’t something the native Brooklynite, whose real name is Julius Gubenko, ever shied away from—Gibbs felt that if you have the chops to play lots of notes, the right notes, and that’s how you hear the music, then that’s what you should do, and you don’t have to make apologies. Bebop, after all, is not, and never was, a minimalistic style.
“King City Stomp” is a swinging blues with some harmonic surprises. Gibbs takes the first solo, and lays down long, fluid lines. During a recent interview with the master, who resides in the Los Angeles area, he explained that one of the vibraphone’s advantages is that you don’t have to breathe the way other instruments do—you can play longer lines than other instruments. This flies in the face of those who would say, “Music is supposed to always breathe,” but Gibbs’ mallets make a better argument than words do for his extra-long, connected lines; and in his defense, he is not the only great vibraphonist in jazz, past or present, who could be accused of playing a lot of notes.
“Pretty Face” comes across like a pared down big band chart, in the Basie tradition. Gibbs and Pollard trade phrases, and again their magical connection is evident. One realizes that Pollard is one of those jazz musicians who regrettably never received the accolades her playing deserved. For whatever reasons, her tenure with Gibbs would prove to be the highlight of her career, in terms of public recognition. The melody here features some nice harmonized lines between piano and vibes; the album as a whole is a great example of how vibes and piano can co-exist wonderfully, if the roles are clearly defined. Here, and as he did almost always, Gibbs’ vibraphone functions more like a horn, a monophonic voice providing melody—leaving Pollard free to comp, often in the funky, rhythmic style of the aforementioned Silver.
The session continues with “The Continental,” a Latin tune that departs from Gibbs’ usual bread and butter swing… but wait! The Latin ends after the head, and we’re swinging again. Swinging hard, in fact. Here is another great solo to transcribe for mallet players hoping to demystify the process of improvising in jazz. The rhythm section more or less stays out of the way here, as it does for most of the session, and the result is that the listener can really focus on the lines being played, by both vibes and piano. Modern jazz recordings of small combos tend to feature drummers who are much more interactive… busy… loud… and the vibraphone often struggles to find its place in the sonic spectrum. When the instrument is well recorded/amplified, this can lead to exciting results, as is evidenced in the work of Bobby Hutcherson, Steve Nelson, and Joe Locke, to name a few. But one great thing about old recordings like “Terry Gibbs” is that you can really hear the tone of the vibraphone, as well as every nuance that is played.
“Bless My Soles” is another straight-ahead swing tune, with nice interplay between Gibbs and Pollard. The date closes with “Nutty Notes,” a “notey” line played in harmony by vibes and piano. The tune seems to be inspired by “Bernie’s Tune,” including similar changes on the bridge. Pollard takes the first solo, and delivers yet another great bop-flavored solo. The author might sound like a broken record, but the combination of Gibbs and Pollard is truly a magic combination. This record belongs on any list of essential small group recordings of the mid-fifties, and most definitely any of list of vibes recordings of the era. In this writer’s opinion, Gibbs is really at his finest on this date. We could take any one of his solos from this recording and make a productive study of it.
So here are a few questions I’d like to pose, with the hopes of generating a discussion:
1. Considering how great he played in his prime, why is Terry Gibbs not typically considered in the conversation of the essential jazz vibraphonists? Or is he? Should he be? Should he not be? Why?
2. Do you agree with Gibbs’ suggestion that it’s okay to play a lot of notes, if they are the right notes, and you’re being true to how you hear the music? Why do vibes players tend to play lots of notes, even the greats? Are there any exceptions to this rule? Who?
3. When you listen to this record now, in 2016, does it sound hip to you? Or does it sound dated? (I’ve made the case that I personally think it sounds hip!).
4. Since this record in 1956, have there been significant innovations in two-mallet, single-note line playing in jazz… or is it all pretty much there, in Gibbs playing, in 1956?
5. Do you agree with my assessment that Terry Pollard was an unsung hero of jazz piano in the fifties, as well as an excellent vibist (given the scant evidence we have, of course)?
6. What are other great Terry Gibbs records?
Next week, I’ll be examining “The Arrival of Victor Feldman.” Feldman was an amazing West Coast pianist/vibraphonist, who unfortunately passed away in 1987. If you ask great vibes players who their heroes are, Feldman is often on the list. Thanks for reading, look forward to your thoughts and opinions! Until next week…