Feel the Vibes: Neon, Trio Viriditas and The Wee Trio
A recently-spotted chat group thread queried, "Is the trombone dead?" A large number of responses set the questioner straight but one response was something like, "No. But the vibes and tuba are." This answer would surprise such active veterans as Gary Burton, Khan Jamal, Bobby Hutcherson and Karl Berger, all of whom are still producing vital music. It would also surprise such younger practitioners of the instrument as Matt Moran, Stefon Harris and Joe Locke. And it would surely surprise the players on these three discs all of whom, in their own way, are keeping the instrument relevant at the dawn of the 21st century.
Here to There
Neon is a drummerless trio that features young UK vibraphonist Jim Hart in collaboration with veteran British saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and pianist Gwilym Simcock. Of the three discs featured here this is the one with an obvious template. Here To There recalls the duo recordings of Gary Burton and Chick Corea and the vibraphonist and pianist display influences of both those players. All members of the band contribute compositions and they operate in the area of lush, Corea-like melodic constructions with motoring rhythmic figures in the vibes and pianist's left hands. The vibes-piano combo can run the risk of becoming texturally and harmonically muddy but these two know when to get out of each other's way and how and when to accompany each other. Sulzmann, the elder of the group with four decades of playing in practically every contemporary style of jazz, brings a contrasting voice with his tenor saxophone that has an appealing gruffness yet still maintains its melodic core. Rhythmic drive is not lacking with each player giving the music its forward motion at various times. The two best cuts are the title track, with its shifting tempos and moments of floating suspension, and "Sweets," which features pianist Simcock overdubbing a quartet of French horns to good effect with rich voicings. It makes one wish they had opted to explore this avenue a little more.
Live At Vision Festival V1
Sadly with the passing of bassist Wilber Morris in 2002, Trio Viriditas became an historic footnote in the careers of drummer/vibraphonist Kevin Norton and reed player Alfred Harth. In their lifespan they only issued one recording (Waxwebwind@ebroadway) so this live date from the 2001 Vision Festival is particularly welcome. Although the members of this trio were from wildly divergent backgrounds, the communication was remarkable. Kevin Norton is more familiarly known as a sensitive yet powerful drummer but he's equally adept on the vibes. Trio Viriditas, while not exclusively a vibes trio has Norton playing enough vibes to qualify for this review. And those are some of the most salient moments of this disc. The nine tracks are edited from the full performance, the first half of the program being primarily improvisations, the last part compositions. It's mostly on the latter half where Norton plays vibes. Morris' ballad "Melancholy" finds him playing slow, arpeggiated figures behind Harth's beautiful, impassioned tenor statement. Elsewhere brittle fleet lines work contrapuntally with both Harth and Morris in dense three-way improvs. And the disc ends on its high note, a deep, soulful version of Horace Silver's "Peace". With two albums, Trio Viriditas didn't leave much behind but what is there makes for a worthy and enduring legacy.
The Wee Trio
Capitol Diner Vol. 1
The youngest of these three vibes-centered groups is the Brooklyn-based Wee Trio. Covers of Kurt Cobain's "About A Girl" and Sufjan Stevens' "Flint" gives their youth away on their recording debut, Capitol Diner, Vol. 1. And these are two of the best tracks on the disc. They do right by the tradition of improvised music and by the songs' origins. "Flint" is a particularly poignant ballad, well rendered. James Westfall draws from the rich history of his instrument; fast Milt Jackson-esque bop lines weave authoritatively through Monk's "Wee See" (taking a little liberty in the title). And, like Bobby Hutcherson, he realizes there's nothing quite like a melody well played on the vibes. Bassist Dan Loomis is a strong anchor to this music and drummer Jared Schoenig gives the music a dynamic rhythmic drive. He gives the Monk tune a nice subtle funky undercurrent but he also knows when to pull backcheck out his tasty brushwork on "Orange Finnish Tulip". Wee Trio shows that the vibraphone is still alive and well. Rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Tracks And Personnel
Here To There
Tracks: Chu Chu; Deviation; Round The Round It All; Here To There; Spring Step; Exciting Eyes; Say No; Sweets.
Personnel: Stan Sulzmann: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Jim Hart: vibraphone, marimba; Gwilym Simcock: piano; french horn.
Live At Vision Festival VI
Tracks: Wind At The Ear Says June; And Loudspeakers Loyal To The Sea's Deep Bass Say June; Hiranyagarbha; Melancholy; A Wind Reads Ruts Saluting The Blue Silk Beyond Pain; Viriditas Waltz; Braggadocio; Fuer Die Katz's Delight - Starbucks; Peace.
Personnel: Alfred Harth: reeds, pocket trumpet, voice; Wilber Morris: bass; Kevin Norton: drums, vibraphone.
Capitol Diner Vol. 1
Tracks: About A Girl; Phantom Prelude; The Ghost Of Potato Creek Johnny; Song For Harry Potter; Orange Finnish Tulip; There Is No Greater Love; Pisces; Satyagraha; Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid); Wee See.
Personnel: James Westfall: vibes; Dan Loomis: bass; Jared Schonig: drums.