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:
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…


My answers to the questions posed:

1. I can’t comment about Terry’s place in the “jazz conversation” since I don't really talk about it much. I would guess that diminishing economic returns from jazz gigging has forced an emphasis on four-mallet playing not as a musical statement but more due to the perceived need to replace a pianist or guitarist in order to keep the band personnel at a trio or quartet. It's ironic in that Terry is a very good four-mallet player although the two-mallet grip tends to serve his concept better.

2. Generally speaking, if one extends the question beyond just the vibes then the argument about “too many notes” is so ridiculous that it was one of the memorable comedy bits in the film Amadeus when Mozart was criticized by the emperor for writing too many notes. Why vibes players play lots of notes is the same reason that Ella sings lots of notes.

3. I haven’t listened to this one individually, but I think the albums from that era are all very hip. I have a preference for the theme albums (listed in No. 6).

4. As far as mechanical technique – no, but as far as context – absolutely yes. The most obvious is Cal, but I’d also submit that Roy Ayers is closer to Terry than he is to Milt. The context of Roy’s playing after he left Herbie Mann is very different, but if you turn off the motor I think you’ll hear Terry’s influence applied in everything Roy plays.

5. I haven’t heard enough of Ms. Pollard to say.

6. I like the theme albums, such as “Plays the Duke” with Pete Jolly on accordion, “Hootenanny My Way” with Alice Coltrane, “Jewish Melodies in Jazztime,” the 52nd Street album with strings from the nineties, and especially the first Dream Band album (all are great but the first made the biggest impression).

Thanks for opening the forum!!

Interesting thoughts, John. Thanks for your feedback. I agree with what you said in #1, re: economic realities of gigging, but I think there is another way to look at it also... Some current players, myself included, are genuinely passionate about four mallet playing in a small group context, for example vibes trio (piano trio, with vibes instead of piano!). In the hands of a capable player who knows tunes, has a command of jazz harmony, good time, etc., I think this is really a great format of the future. Sonically, the vibraphone is more "airy" and transparent than the piano, and having only four mallets (as opposed to ten fingers) forces you to make more judicious choices. Also, because this instrumentation hasn't been used very much in the recorded history of the music, there is still a lot of "uncharted territory." I like the idea of a vibes player employing the same harmonic richness and orchestral sensibilities as a great jazz pianist. In my opinion, that is a bright aspect of the future of the vibraphone in jazz. There are young players coming up who are two-mallet guys, and they sound really good... the two-mallet tradition continues... but I am also excited about the four-mallet players out there who are pushing the envelope.

didn't victor feldman come from England?

You really raise an interesting point - is the entire idea of the "west coast player" a matter of musical style or strictly a geographic location?

For example, Terry is a New Yorker and developed his style long before re-locating to California, and the same is true or Victor Feldman being well established in England before re-locating. I've met a few California musicians who believe that the "West Coast Sound" is nothing more than something writers cooked up to have something to write about. And at the same time, other musicians (thinking here of Brubeck and Stan Kenton) who hail from the West Coast really don't sound like the stereotype.

I believe that Anthony is referring to geographic location where a number of musicians wound up living and working (as opposed to musical style or anything else). But the larger question might be "why" a move across the country was deemed to be preferable to the Jazz Center of the World on the East Coast. To what degree was it opportunity (TV and films), logistics (easier to move a vibraphone in a car than on the subway), or better weather? Or all of the above?

John, I personally think there is a West Coast sound. it's a little bit more laid back, relaxed, than the East Coast vibe. Of course it goes back to the Fifties, with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Getz, and others. I think if you listen to Feldman's records, and Charlie Shoemake (both who I will soon profile), you can hear the West Coast influence in their work, to some degree. Is it possible that I and others are imagining this, and, as you suggest, the whole "West Coast Sound" idea was nothing more than a marketing gimmick? Sure! I suppose so. But I think Charlie would agree that there is something to it... that there is in fact a West Coast "flavor" of jazz. Charlie and I had a great conversation (for the book I've written, coming out in the fall), and he did address the SECOND component you mention: the career implications of being West Coast based vs East Coast. Charlie feels that he would have had a bigger career, had he moved East early on. He chose to stay in So. Cal, and has no regrets. He's had a great life and a great career. He told me a funny story about this very thing--being relegated to some measure of obscurity by resisting the urge to move to NYC--but I'll save that one for the book!
Thanks for your comments

Is there a list of west coast vibe players somewhere? I want to check all the players out that you mention! Who should I listen to first?

Great idea! We should assemble a comprehensive list of all the West Coast vibes players worth checking out.
I think we've chosen a good starting point: Terry, Victor, Charlie and Bobby :-D

I'll post my Victor Feldman review/profile soon...

Great idea! We should assemble a comprehensive list of all the West Coast vibes players worth checking out.
I think we've chosen a good starting point: Terry, Victor, Charlie and Bobby :-D

I'll post my Victor Feldman review/profile soon...

Hey Anthony,

I'm loving this series on West Coast vibists. I think these reviews are great, and it has me revisiting some of these albums I've had and haven't listened to in awhile.

I was just reading the new review on the Victor Feldman album you did, and it reminded about something from the Terry Gibbs album I forgot to mention. Maybe I'm nuts, but when I was listening to Seven Come Eleven, it sounds like Terry Gibbs hops in on piano at around 2:59, perhaps like a two finger Hamp style thing? I'm no pianist, but the voicings sound a little dense there to be left handed voicings, which leads me to think there's two people on piano, and the solo style in the right hand sounds different. Has anyone else noticed this?

Anyway, I think it's so cooking! There's something about a vibist's touch on piano. I've had these conversations with David Hazeltine about Buddy Montgomery, and he always says Buddy's right hand stylings are unique because of his vibraphone capabilities.

By the way, Buddy, isn't he another West Coast guy? Perhaps you can do 5 West Coast players :)

Good ear, Behn! That's definitely Terry doing his piano shtick, with two-handed piano accompaniment underneath... Three-handed piano! Man, Terry's wailing on those upper register piano lines. So clean, so hard-swinging. Imagine what an amazing smartphone texter he would have been, in today's day and age LOL! (Maybe he IS, I know he always wears his Bluetooth earpiece).

Thanks for the feedback, and I'm glad you're digging the blog. I need to do some research on Buddy, in terms of where he hung his hat. I heard him play in the Bay Area a couple times, but where did he actually live? Either way, he is worthy of paying tribute to! Can you list some of his vibes albums... you gave me a couple to check out, but there are a number of them, right? I think it would be great for people to know what they're called, so they can seek them out and give them a listen.

Moving on next to Charlie Shoemake...

I'm thinking now that Buddy spent most of his career in the Milwaukee area, although the Montgomery brothers spent some time in the Bay area around late 50s/early 60s. Not sure how long.

Great job on the discussion re: Terry Gibbs.
I'm a big fan and have played a lot of his recordings on Good Vibes. He has an energy like no other. You can always count on him to up the ante. He's been called the "energizer bunny" and "his own best cheerleader." His musical reputation was cemented with me when I saw that video of him and Terry Pollard playing vibes together. It's still up on YouTube if anyone wants to catch it.

Regarding your first question, someone who knew Gibbs way back when told me some first-hand disturbing stories about his behavior (needlessly disrespectful, haughty, arrogant) that made it hard for me to separate the man from the music. Knowing that not all jazz musicians are darlings as far as personality, (could it be?) but could this have something to do with the way he is not regularly named in conversations about the pioneers of the instrument? Did he antagonize enough people, poison his own well? I've heard the same kind of rumors/gossip of other musicians/actors/etc., but if true it doesn't seem to have hurt their careers.

Terry Pollard, had she continued her career, would be a name we all know today. According to her biography, she dropped out of the Detroit music scene in 1956 to raise a family. She continued to play some local gigs, I've read. I don't think we know enough about her to say whether the official story is true or not - I hope it is, and that she was a happy mom and wife thereafter. Just seems odd that someone with that talent, both at the piano and the vibes, would be content to give it up. I think Gibbs' intent on posting that video was to get her the attention she deserves. He talked about it here on vw at the time.
I especially like Swing Is Here and Flying Home Vol.4.

also Check out another Pianist from the Terry Gibbs small groups Mrs Pat Moran. Pat is also an unsung genius of the jazz piano and make her mark on the scene in Terry Gibbs ensembles ..