Bobby Hutcherson is dead

Notes on the late vibraphonist's first two albums
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Bobby Hutcherson is dead.

Which might not matter to you, but it should. In addition to performing on jazz classics which you might already love like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Andrew Hill’s Judgment!, Hutcherson’s got a few classics under his own name, all part of a wave of avant-garde and experimental jazz releases around the same time from Blue Note.

And crucially, his was a distinct sound because, well, he played the vibraphone. There’s a certain child-like wonder to the instrument’s tone (or that might simply be my memories of me hammering xylophones in my youth), which, creates a contrast to the weirdness of some of the compositions. As if to say, there’s nothing to be scared of despite wandering these unknown streets, alone at night. Nothing to be scared of in the chaos because these were dreams and not nightmares.

Both Dialogue (his debut album, released 1965) and Components (his sophomore, released 1966) are great records, that you should listen to immediately if you’re not already familiar with them, or you should listen to anyway given his passing. And both feature an all-star band: Joe Chambers (drums) and Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) are on both, but then you’ve got Andrew Hill returning the favor for Judgment! by playing piano and penning most of Dialogue, to be swapped for Herbie Hancock on Components (who had himself revealed an experimental side on Empyrean Isles’ “The Egg”); Richard Davis on bass to be swapped for Ron Carter; Sam Rivers on woodwinds to be swapped for James Spaulding.

Bobby Hutcherson’s debut album is a good a starting point as any, not because its reputation, but because it eases you into the pool. Hutcherson would get surer of himself with Components; every song on Dialogue is written by Andrew Hill or Joe Chambers. Moreover, it takes a while to get going: both “Catta” and the night-time ballad “Idle While” are (relatively) normal. On “Catta”, there’s the underpinning melody over the Latin 8/4 rhythm of the theme throughout, such that, even when Sam Rivers unleashes his blistering solo, it feels like it has to work against the composition.

Therefore, “Les noirs marchant” is where Dialogue really takes off. Here, Joe Chambers lays down a military rhythm, and the rest of the band twist it into a procession of animals at night, marching through the forest to overtake the land. Andrew Hill’s piano twinkles are the stars, and that’s the only thing that’s normal against the cacophony of Hubbard and Spaulding. And the weirdness continues with the title track: a ten minute conversation where everyone talks and listens and is understood at the same time. Afterwards, there’s a return to normalcy on “Ghetto Lights.” Whereas Hill inverted Latin jazz on opener “Catta,” he flips blues on “Ghetto Lights,” with Hutcherson as the lights, of course; there’s an onward push from Chambers and Davis here, despite the invocation of the ghetto in the informed playing and title. And that’s not to forget the bonus track, “Jasper,” which has Richard Davis laying down the pavement for the rest of the band to run at breakneck speeds. Truthfully, the album might’ve been better had “Jasper” replaced “Catta” (“Jasper” would later see an official release on Spiral, available in 1979).

Only two months after recording Dialogue – which hadn’t even been released yet – Bobby set to work on his next album, this time writing half of the songs himself, and letting Chambers write the rest. Components has the same set-up as Dialogue: it starts normal, with Hutcherson’s compositions, and then it dives into experimentalism in the second half. In other words, fitting title.

But while Dialogue provides a good starting point into his discography, ah – I can’t contain myself anymore – Components is the better album. The songs are even more evocative than last time, practically mini-galaxies of their own, and well, there are more of them. Plus, the variety: “Components” is hard-bop; “Tranquility” is appropriately titled proto-ambient; “Little B’s Poem”’s child-like theme soothes and its solos invigorate; “West 22 Street Theme” is the soundtrack for a detective film never made; “Movement” throws you in the jungle through the thickness of the sound; “Juba Dance” has an unsettling, cavernous tribal rhythm; “Air” is pure evil in the way each member contorts their instruments; “Pastoral” functions like “Ghetto Lights”: bringing you back to reality. To say nothing of Chambers’ movement from thunder to waves on “Components” and then to raindrops on “Tranquility.”

Furthermore, the solos are sharper. If the theme of “Little B’s Poem” is too cloying to you – it is to me, on certain moods – be sure to stay for James Spaudling’s solo at the 2-minute mark; my ears perk up each time during his introduction – you just know he’ll deliver the goods, and then he does. And Herbie Hancock works his ass off here, making himself known in every song. Check out how he elevates Hutcherson’s solo on the title track, with his light touch over rapid-fire chords, or how he brings “Little B’s Poem” to a climax of descending and crashing chords. The fiery inspiration seems to come out of nowhere, but yet, as opposed to Rivers’ solo on “Catta,” is tonally fitting with the rest of the song.

As mentioned, both great albums. Googling Bobby Hutcherson quotations, I found this gem: “The whole thing of being in music is not to control it but to be swept away by it.” It’s the perfect description of his own sound: by turns, normal, chaotic, childlike, mature. Get swept away; get lost; come on, let’s go.