Jean Vanasse: Vibraphonist Unsurpassed

Robert J. Lewis By

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For most people it is impossible to be equally disposed toward all musical instruments and their generic sound; some immediately resonate, others never, even over an entire lifetime. A musician who manages to win over those previously indifferent or worse—through the power of sound, invention or understanding of the possibilities of the instrument—is to be ranked among the select few who significantly expand our musical horizons.

Until I heard Canada's Kevin Breit, I was never a fan of the banjo. Until Richard Galliano exploded my prejudices during a concert with Bireli Lagrene, I was negatively (homicidally) disposed toward the accordion, despite its pivotal role in the production of tango, whose plaintive interval never fails to stir the heart.

Many years ago, dating back to their first collaboration in the 1980s, I was indifferent to the sub-zero, outer space, metallic peal of the vibraphone, until Jean Vanasse—in duo with ex-Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous—took my preconceptions by the neck and, through the force of his revelatory playing, convinced me of the instrument's unsuspected range and distinctly affecting radiance. No surprise that the Vanasse-Vitous reunion at Salle Gesù was the most talked about, pleasant surprise concert of the 2008 Montreal Jazz Festival.

In the context of jazz, most vibraphonists are attracted to the ethereal, spacey wave effect the instrument so easily produces. As an unintended consequence, the single note is often given short shrift, in part because, like the harpsichord note, it can't be shaped or vibrated, which means the musician can't impose his will onto it. The vibraphonist may also fear that single note playing is tantamount to an admission of inferior musicianship.

As physical sonic fact, it is true that the vibraphone note, compared to other notes from other instruments, is exceptionally self-sufficient, independent from the musician; its generic sound comes across as prefabricated. But instead of fighting the fixed facts of his instrument, Vanasse embraces what is there and allows the notes, in their sequence, the breathing room they require in order to effectively disclose their temperament and particular relationship with acoustic space.

Unlike the high priests of the vibraphone—beginning with Lionel Hampton, then Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and the incomparable Gary Burton, whose mostly 4-mallet sound is generated by the deliberate interpenetration of the notes and chord progressions—Vanasse makes the clarity of the note the instrument's defining issue. If the banjo note begins to disappear the moment it's plucked, the vibraphone note releases its sound in an unusually leisurely fashion: think of spray or vapor suffusing space, or how a chime spreads in a Buddhist temple.

To discover what is essential and irreducible in the vibraphone note requires an understanding of its limitation and application; not all feelings and ideas are equally served. During a Vanasse concert, the vibraphone's delicacy is made clear—its spiritual indices, its ability to haunt space, communicate mystery, uncertainty, hesitation, and post-modern malaise. It is easily the most insubstantial, disembodied note in the musical lexicon. The intention underlying Vanasse's playing isn't so much to fill space as to create it, by endowing it with stealth-like depth and dimensionality that wafts over those hearing it like a mist or halo. It becomes possible to appreciate Vanasse's willingness to meet the vibraphone's sound on its own terms, so as to better assimilate its idiosyncratic lack of density, the insight of which informs his artful accompaniment, which is just as noteworthy as his soloing—and all this from cold metal keys that ring like bells submerged in water.

Vanasse's extraordinary accomplishment has not been lost on Miroslav Vitous, regarded by many as one the seminal bassists in fusion jazz. In the unlikely but wholly convincing pairing of bass and vibes, Vanasse has found a way to reveal himself in the repose of what is bravely original and unprecedented in his playing, characterized by deceptive simplicity which is an implicit rejection of the legato-produced, tiresome wave effect that has become so synonymous with the instrument. Vanasse wants to purge the vibraphone's sound of everything that is arbitrary, contrived and pedal boosted.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / Jean Vanasse / Miroslav Vitous l:r: Jean Vanasse, Miroslav Vitous

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