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Vibes man

Bobby HutchersonThe last time I saw Bobby Hutcherson, during a short season at Ronnie Scott’s in 2009, I came away convinced that he is the finest living ballad player in all of jazz. It was a Saturday night, the club was packed, and not every member of the audience could have been relied upon to recite the titles of his early Blue Note albums in sequence. Barely seeming to touch the vibes as he spun out glorious melodic variations on “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and other beautiful songs, he held the place in a spellbound silence purely through the beauty of his turn of phrase. A similar subtlety informed his performance of several John Coltrane tunes drawn from his then-current album, titled Wise One — after one of those tunes — and released on the Kind of Blue label.

The ulterior motive for my presence that night was to persuade Hutcherson to talk to me about the trumpeter Dupree Bolton. He was courteously reluctant at first, but eventually gave way and presented me with a long and colourful account of their association back when the vibes man was a teenager and still at school while playing in a band with Bolton, Frank Morgan and Elmo Hope at the It Club in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. When I get around to writing my book about Dupree (a promise to myself, if to no one else), that story will find its way into the public domain.

His playing has always been important to me. Andrew Hill’s Judgment!, on which he played in a quartet completed by Richard Davis and Elvin Jones, is probably my favourite Blue Note album of all. His contributions to Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond and Destination Out!, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Grant Green’s Idle Moments and Street of Dreams and his own Happenings — one of the great Sunday-morning albums — and the superlative Oblique, all recorded for that same label in the mid-1960s, are records I wouldn’t be without, largely thanks to him. But almost anything with his name on it, whether he’s stroking the contours of a ballad or feeling his way out on to a musical precipice, has always been worth hearing.

That night when I went to see him at Ronnie’s, emphysema was forcing him to leave the stage every 10 minutes or so to take a hit from his oxygen tank. It had no effect whatsoever on his playing, which was of the very highest quality. He’s 73 now, and the respiratory condition has apparently taken foreign travel off the schedule, but it has not stopped him playing occasional club dates in the US and making some extremely fine records.

The latest of them is called Enjoy the View, and it finds him back home on the revived Blue Note label, under the supervision of its new president, Don Was. Anyone fearful that Was’s background might compromise the jazz content of the label’s new releases can stop worrying now: this album is nothing but jazz, coming from a lovely and completely uncompromised place somewhere between the more adventurous and the more conservative examples of his earlier Blue Note output.

Hutcherson is joined by the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the alto saxophonist Dave Sanborn and the drummer Billy Hart: it’s a line-up from heaven, playing a bunch of originals (by all participants except Hart) which combine fine grooves with the sort of acute melodic and harmonic angles likely to provoke thoughtful improvisers into producing their best work. I can’t really pick out an individual contribution because they’re all exceptional, although perhaps I should say that this is the best I’ve ever heard Sanborn play, and detail inside Hart’s propulsive drumming will astonish those who’ve never listened to him properly.

Recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood by Frank Wolf, the album has a clarity, depth and warmth that, even on CD, evokes the matchless sound Rudy Van Gelder bestowed on all the legendary sessions held for Blue Note at his place in Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: a special quality for which the label became famous.

I read a review in an American publication that awarded this album three stars (out of five) and dismissed it as run-of-the mill-stuff. I can’t buy that. This is a very good Bobby Hutcherson album, which means it’s as good as it gets. Here’s one of the gentler tracks, a Hutcherson composition called “Montara”, so you can decide for yourself.

* The photograph is from the cover of Bobby Hutcherson’s For Sentimental Reasons, released in 2007 on the Kind of Blue label, and was taken by Jimmy Katz.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. My favorite album of his as a leader is probably Head On, but there’s tons of quality in his catalog. Judgment! is indeed astonishingly fine. Thanks for the tip – will listen today!

    July 24, 2014
  2. David Chilver #

    Another wonderful example of Mr Hutcherson’s sublime ballad artistry is to be found on the YouTube clip of him playing “Old Folks” with Joe Locke. Well worth checking out if you aren’t already familiar with it. It also provides a fascinating contrast between these two artists’ different styles. And it’s nice to see, just by his expressions, how Joe Locke so evidently is in awe of Hutcherson’s playing

    July 24, 2014
  3. Bobby Hutcherson is indisputably a member of Blue Note’s Pantheon of Gods. Only the fact that he plays an outré instrument prevents wider appreciation of this point. The number of BN classic recordings name checked above is an embarrassment of riches, and amply buttresses this thesis (‘Happenings’: also includes THE definitive version of Herbie’s ‘Maiden Voyage imo)

    For a wonderful example of his harmonic and rhythmic genius, try McCoy Tyner’s 1974 magnum opus ‘Sama Layuca’, both on the driving title song and the 2nd duet track, ‘Over the Rainbow’. Absolutely stunning, and the way he roots the music and complements McCoy’s piano playing illustrates his genius at ensemble playing & solo performance.

    Driving through the Missouri Ozarks yesterday I heard this new record, and was gratified that Don Was’ new incarnation of BN is true to its illustrious legacy and tradition.

    Thanks, Richard for another perceptive and thoughtful post, this one dedicated to a giant of the music and a truly beautiful human being.

    July 24, 2014
  4. John Kieffer #

    Yes, thanks indeed for this post Richard. Bobby Hutcherson has an extraordinary body of work. His relationship with Andrew Hill produced some fantastic music. Dialogue is a particular favourite of mine – what a line-up of musicians too! Also his Live at Montreux from 1973 with Woody Shaw has to be one of the most explosive live jazz recordings ever.

    I’m definitely going to check the new one out. David Sanborn can be a wonderful player in the right context and this sounds like it could be one of them. Another Hand, Upfront and Pearls are excellent records.

    July 24, 2014
  5. Matthew Wright #

    Thanks for that, Richard – a forgotten hero. It must have been a baptism of fire for the young Hutcherson to cut his teeth with those West Coast musicians. See what you mean about his ballad work – an early example from 1961 being on Groovin’ Blue (Pacific Jazz) with Curtis Amy, Carmell Jones & Frank Butler, where he is featured on “Beautiful You”.
    Agree about the period of the Blue Notes – in particular on the McLeans and Moncur’s “Evolution” – where he takes place of pianist to drive the rhythm section along – though with Tony Williams this is hardly necessary – but equally at ease going into the “freer” areas. Full of imagination and sublety.
    I seem to recall a later (80s?) album by Harold Land (Xocia’s Dance) which I recall was underrated and I thought particularly good, but haven’t heard it for years.

    July 25, 2014
  6. It’s always good to see the very great Bobby Hutcherson get some appreciation. His Blue Note albums are ever bit as formally innovative as those great titles – Dialogue, Components, Patterns, Oblique – suggest.

    That’s great to hear someone else like Judgement! as much as me, it’s probably my favourite Andrew Hill and perhaps the best Hutcherson too.

    I’ve always loved most the quicksilver logic of his playing, where he seemed able to move across the scale effortlessly, and sometimes you can hear the sheer speed of the hands moving. I suspect I’d miss that in these newer recordings, but I’ll check them out. Nice piece.

    July 25, 2014
  7. Just discovered this site, great stuff. Bobby is one of my favorites. I love his playing on Oblique with Herbie, Joe Chambers, and Albert Stinson (who was tragically short-lived). And Bobby’s more modern stuff is impeccable and beautiful.

    With regards to Dupree, I hope you do publish something eventually! Can you share anything that Bobby discussed at this point?

    August 5, 2014
    • Thanks for the kind comments. Re Hutcherson on Bolton: I can’t, I’m afraid, because I’m saving it up for the right moment, and it’s more or less one complete story.

      August 6, 2014

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