The vibraphone is a relatively new instrument, introduced to the US in 1916 as the "steel marimba. Red Norvo, one of the very first musicians to play it, came to the vibes after playing a lot of xylophone and marimba. Vibraphonists Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton all made important contributions to the development and musical vocabulary of jazz besides being recognized as virtuoso players. Khan Jamal's Black Awareness
and Lalo's Half Moon
present two more approaches to the instrument, different from their formidable predecessors and very different from one another.
"One Comes First is the opening tune on Black Awareness, and it has an attractive melody. The solos are fine, if a little low on energy, especially considering what follows. Trombonist Grachan Moncur III's "Riff Raff is also a swinger, but his composition "Believe, which sounds like a cross between the standard "When I Fall in Love and a spiritual, is gorgeous, Moncur and Byard Lancaster (alto) weaving singing lines in between one another.
"Black Awareness is a soaring performance from start to finish and should have been the first track. Lancaster's solo sure has energy to spare, but also has an awareness (no pun intended) of melody, harmony and pacing that is missing from a lot of the music on this label. Moncur's solo follows and again it's a pleasure to hear someone really play musical trombone. Jamal's solo is very interesting, not like a Milt Jackson or Hutcherson solo, which would have had a more linear bebop quality. Here (and in other places on this recording) Jamal plays the vibraphone more like its predecessor, the African balafon. In fact the next track, "Nubian Queen, uses that approach to full effect on a striking, totally solo vibraphone performance, displaying Jamal's truly unique approach to the instrument.
On "Bloom (which is listed as "Blown in the producer's notes, indeed a Freudian slip if ever there was one), again the melody is original but accessible. Moncur solos first and is swinging, melodic and thoughtful. Lancaster's solo follows and is very dynamic, going from a whisper to a scream and back. Next Jamal solos, and after hearing "Nubian Queen (as well as his albums on SteepleChase), you really wish this CD had been recorded differently. The energy of the drums (Dwight James) drives the piece, but the volume of the fills almost buries the sound of the vibes.
Then, if that wasn't enough to make you scream, "Sonny's Back Pt.1 & Pt.2, a blues in C, features Moncur reciting something in the beginning of the piece, which for all intents and purposes is inaudible. The engineer says that this was an "intentional part of the music and not a defect of the recording process. Weapons of mass destruction, anybody? Though I have strong reservations about the way it's recordedand then "explained" in the liner notes and manifesto, which could be changed to Semper (Low) Fi, Do or Diethe session is well worth your ears.
Half Moon suffers from the opposite problem. Instead of a barely produced session of rooted jazz, Lalo's session is slickly produced, sonically pristine, and devoid of much jazz content. The compositions (all by the vibraphonist) are skillfully orchestrated and there is some very good playing by a big cast of musicians. In the liner notes she says, "We decided it [the tune "Seductive Grace ] should be used on the soundtrack to a horror flick and indeed, all the pieces could be good for soundtracks... for rolling credits, for various product commercials, etc. As of right now, Lalo probably wouldn't be mentioned alongside Norvo, Milt Jackson or Hutcherson, but that's not to say Half Moon doesn't have worth.
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Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: One Comes First; Riff Raff; Believe; Black Awareness; Nubian Queen; Bloom; Sonny's Back Pt.1 & Pt.2.
Personnel: Khan Jamal: vibes; Byard Lancaster: alto sax; Grachan Moncur III: trombone: voice; Dylan Taylor: bass; Dwight James: drums.
Tracks: Dreamwalker; Hands; Everyday; Tango for T.Lynn; Adventures of the BQE; Waves; Half Moon; Seductive Grace; Curiosity.
Personnel: Lalo: vibraphone; Madeline Sturm: bass clarinet; Judson Crane: guitar; Ivan Sturm: bass; Ted Poor: drums; Jack Bashkow: flute; Kenny Rampton: trumpet; Nathan Heleine: alto sax; Take Toriyama: drums; Joshua Davis: bass; Andrew Sherman: rhodes; Brad Hubbard: baritone sax; Lionel Loueke: guitar.