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Tony Miceli: Vibraphone All-Star Jam Session at Chris’ Jazz Cafe

Victor L. Schermer By

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Tony Miceli and Company
Vibraphone All-Star Jam Session / Steve Weiss Mallet Festival
Chris' Jazz Café
Philadelphia, PA
August 3, 2019

It's hard to imagine how five (if you include a special guest, six) vibraphone players can come together to provide an hour or so of great music at a small club. However, this event succeeded admirably in doing so. Tony Miceli, founder/director of the first Steve Weiss Mallet Festival in Philadelphia, organized a beautiful set of songbook standards with each vibraphonist doing one tune with a rhythm section whose lively, almost feathery swinging flattered them all. The result was enjoyable and satisfying.

The story of how this show came about involves vibraphonist Miceli's entrepreneurial skills. For years, he has been running a remarkable website upon which vibraphonists converge to provide articles, audio/video lessons, and information to one another, eventuating in a worldwide vibraphone community. More recently, Miceli founded a yearly international vibraphone conference bringing together instrumentalists and others in the industry for live interactions, panels, and workshops. This year, he initiated the Steve Weiss Mallet Festival, and got some of the vibraphonists and long time associates from these ventures to perform and do workshops in events at the Barnes Museum, the Settlement Music School, and Chris' Jazz Café. Named in honor of the late instrument seller Steve Weiss and in part sponsored by his company, the Festival is unique in that it features an instrument rather than the usual potpourri of jazz ensembles.

Miceli himself initiated the set with two standards, "Some Day My Prince Will Come," which was requested by a vibes player in the audience celebrating his birthday who joined the group for the last tune, and "I Remember You," dedicated to Miceli's father who passed away recently. (Miceli and his sister, who was in the crowd, are still in mourning and there was a moment of poignant tender words shared by them.) The music intensified with Downbeat Rising Star, Ben Gallese, with his complex voicings and intricate twists on an extended version of "How Deep is the Ocean?" Pianist Tom Lawton matched him in intricacy, and Gallese traded fours with drummer Dan Monaghan, highlighting the fact that the vibraphone is a percussion instrument. Gallese's style has a definite ring of Milt Jackson, but it is a complex amalgam of many influences.

University of the Arts graduate and now New York based Chen Chen Lu is throwing herself into her jazz career winning favorable accolades from fans and critics. She dished out several choruses of "Green Dolphin Street" with panache, using two hard-hitting rather than the four mallets which Gary Burton and many others use today. The serious listener could perceive the way she brought out the distinct sound of chimes or bells from which the vibraphone bars derive. It could be that her Asian background, where gongs and other percussive metal sounds are common, sensitized her to that aspect of the instrument.

Joe Doubleday, a transplanted Midwesterner and graduate of Berklee and Juilliard Schools of Music, shifted the mood and style back to the days of Red Norvo, with single line improvisations around the popular tune "Moonglow." The set provided an optimal opportunity to hear diverse styles of vibraphone playing, which has undergone its own musical development from Lionel Hampton to Joe Locke.

Dave Friedman was the granddaddy and mentor of the crew. Friedman's career dates back to the 1960s and he has contributed inestimably to many aspects of music-making. Friedman is one of the truly active long-time working musicians still around from the 1960s, having worked with Chet Baker, Horace Silver, Yoko Ono (!) and many others, and coleader with David Samuels of the much talked about "Double Image" group. His version of "How Insensitive" was the most harmonically complex and introspective of the set, stimulating brilliant piano and bass solos by Lawton and Lee Smith respectively.

The set concluded with multiple choruses of "Bags' Groove," Milt Jackson's tune bearing his nickname that he introduced in a 1952 Blue Note recording. The vibes players in the set took turns honoring their great forebear of modern jazz vibraphone. It was a perfect way to wrap up some warm, wonderful music making that, despite its commercial purpose of publicizing the vibraphone, was humbly presented by a cadre of colleagues who respected one another and just played the hell out of their instrument.

Set List: Some Day My Prince Will Come; I Remember You; How Deep is the Ocean?; Green Dolphin Street; Moonglow; How Insensitive; Bags' Groove.

Personnel: Tony Miceli: vibraphone and music director; Behn Gallese, Chen Cien Lu Joe Doubleday, David Friedman: vibraphones; Tom Lawton: piano; Lee Smith: upright bass; Dan Monaghan: drums.
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