Friday, December 1, 2017

Steve Hobbs' Tribute to Bobby

When I first started listening to jazz seriously, probably right after I left college and went to live in Virginia, my entry point was the vibraphone. More specifically, I really responded to Milt Jackson's vibes, and I set out on my jazz journey by purchasing several albums from the Modern Jazz Quartet. There's something about the vibraphone and the way the notes float and shimmer in space that really sends chills down my spine.

I also love the marimba, almost in the same way I love the vibes. My interest in the marimba predates my interest in jazz--I once fell in love with a very funky marimba that I found for sale in La Luz de Jesus, an art gallery/curio shop on Melrose in Hollywood. It was $700. I never quite saved enough to buy it, but I'll remember its glorious sound for the rest of my life.

Perhaps that's why I immediately responded so favorably to Steve Hobbs' Tribute to Bobby. Hobbs has been a true legend when it comes to jazz marimba and vibraphone--he has been recording for Challenge Records for 43 years. The "Bobby" in question is Bobby Hutcherson, who was Hobbs' mentor and dear friend who recently passed away. This tribute includes many Hobbs originals with just a couple of exceptions--Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind and "Where or When" from Rodgers & Hart.

Hobbs enlists the help of the musicians who have played with him on his last three albums--sax player Adam Kolker, pianist Bill O'Connell, bassist Peter Washington and drummer John Riley. This quintet can move gracefully through all sorts of jazz genres such as calypso, Latin, funk and even a bit of gospel (on "The Road to Happy Destiny," which does sound like it belongs on a different album), but this recording's strongest asset is Hobbs, who can really dig out the sound of mallets hitting blocks and bars. For me this is the true thrill of so-called struck idiophones, the way the sound of the mallets against the bars can sound so immediate and present and normal--and by normal I mean familiar, as in a familiar sound that doesn't sound ethereal or impossible. Anyone can make that sound at least once, and so it registers as something comfortable in the back of the brain.

Of course the secret is stringing those notes together in a way that is not only musical but unique, especially in terms of the entire performance. Hobbs is quick and light, in the manner of most of his colleagues, but he is also very caring in terms of extracting the right tone from his instrument. In a way he is the David Gilmour of struck idiophones, where every note is carefully chosen and winds up being the perfect fit for the song.

The sound quality is indeed excellent, which is important when it comes to hearing the striking of the mallet, the note produced by the instrument and then how that note moves and fills the room. Perhaps that's why I'm so in love with the sound of these instruments--you can crawl inside of these sounds and explore. There's so much to feel here.

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