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The Soft Edge of Bobby Hutcherson's Oblique
Revisiting the vibraphonist's classic 1967 session that was left in the vaults for over a decade
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
Before introducing the theme of my essay this time around, I wanted to thank everyone who has recently subscribed to my Substack. About a month ago, I lamented that the pace of new subscriptions had slackened and in sharing that with others, many replied to reassure that they thought that it had to do with the time of year (mid-August, smack dab in the middle of the dog days of summer) and that things would bounce back soon. Bounce back they have, and now I am very close to reaching my big goal for my Substack this year: 1,000 subscribers. Wow! Thank you to everyone here and for deeming my work worthy of appearing in your inbox. Writing about music has long been something I have wanted to do and your support helps me to think it may just be possible for this wish to come true. I appreciate you all.
This time around, I am writing about one of my favourite Blue Note recordings—a quartet date by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson from July 1967 that is among his very best. Inexplicably it was left unreleased for a dozen years and finally saw the light of day as Oblique. I hope you enjoy the essay and will share your thoughts on Hutcherson by dropping a comment below.
As noted the last time I was in touch, I will be on vacation for a considerable portion of early autumn. After a week at a cottage just after Labour Day, my wife and I will be in Georgian Bay for a few days at the end of September which means there will be another two-week lag before I am next in touch. Expect the next ‘Listening Sessions’ dispatch on October 5 (I will be resuming my usual schedule of sending an essay every 10 days for all of October).
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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There are two ways to how one can approach the output of musicians who spent part or all of the sixties recording for Blue Note Records. There is the perspective from considering their recordings as issued throughout the decade and then there’s the hindsight made possible by the release of most of the sessions that sat in the vault for years (or even decades) that offers a fuller, and often more complex, portrait of many who called Blue Note their recording home.
Take, for example, trumpeter Lee Morgan who followed up his landmark session released as The Sidewinder in December 1963 with two sextet dates: the challenging and forward-looking Search for the New Land and the more nostalgic Tom Cat (complete with a rare sideman appearance by Morgan’s old employer Art Blakey). Both were held back with the former appearing in 1966 and the latter not until a decade later. Instead, what was released was The Rumproller, a sequel of sorts to The Sidewinder and a mighty fine one to be sure, that precluded the consideration of the interesting tributaries Morgan took along the way to its recording in the spring of 1965.
Similarly, the decision to hold back many of the quartet dates guitarist Grant Green made with piano in favour of ones with an organist or a thematic concept like the gospel-drenched Feelin’ the Spirit somewhat obscured his now crystal-clear modernist bona fides.
Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s path was more straightforward. If there was a duality, it was centered around his versatility, his ability to be a player for all seasons. His deeply modern and in-the-pocket touch added to the riches of something like Green’s classic Idle Moments which luxuriates in what happens when four master soloists (in this case, Hutcherson and Green as well as tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and pianist Duke Pearson) get together in the same room. Conversely, he skirted the edge on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, tempering his innate melodicism for a pointed, percussive attack that stayed thoroughly in the moment while navigating Dolphy’s often-witty compositions. On both dates, Hutcherson sounded entirely at home (by contrast, as grand a player as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard was, his presence on Out to Lunch feels, just slightly, like he was trying to extend his chops outside of his comfort zone).
Hutcherson was of a class of vibraphone players that included Walt Dickerson and Gary Burton who were extending the instrument beyond how torchbearers like Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson had turned the vibraphone into the leading auxiliary voice in jazz.
Jackson was Hutcherson’s inspiration for taking up the vibraphone. A native of Los Angeles, his first recordings were with mainstays of California jazz. Hutcherson debuted on record in 1960 at the age of 19 with pianist Les McCann and he also recorded with saxophonist Curtis Amy (who would eventually be immortalized by Carole King as the ‘Jazzman’). In 1962, he joined the group co-led by Basie New Testament members: trombonist Al Grey and tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell, and a year later, moved to New York. While he was trying to establish himself in the city’s jazz scene, he worked as a cab driver.
It was at a jam session at the apartment of bassist Herbie Lewis, whom Hutcherson knew growing up and was then a member of the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, that trombonist Grachan Moncur III, also at the time with the Jazztet and there at the jam in Lewis’ pad, got an idea.
Altoist Jackie McLean was one of jazz’s most committed seekers in the sixties. Reared on bop and its churchy offshoot hard bop, he also had an adventurous side, particularly through his participation in bassist Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus in 1956 and Blues & Roots three years later as well as his interest in modal improvisation and fellow altoist Ornette Coleman’s pursuit of a freer jazz unburdened by harmonic constraints. Moncur III, another player who was both inside and outside of the tradition, was in McLean’s band in addition to the Jazztet, as was the deeply precocious and soon-to-be revolutionary drummer Tony Williams, all of 17 years old at the dawn of 1963, and bassist Eddie Khan. The trombonist thought Hutcherson was a musician who would fit just right with what McLean was doing, walking a jazz tightrope that embraced the new as well as preserved the old.
Employing Hutcherson as opposed to using a pianist or, like Coleman, going piano-less, burnished the two records he made with McLean and Moncur III: One Step Beyond, with Khan and Williams, and Destination… Out!, with bassist Larry Ridley and drummer Roy Haynes, with an unflagging vitality and openness. The latter in particular has a shimmering perfection, a continuity that demands it be experienced in whole like such masterpieces as Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Cannonball Adderley’s Know What I Mean? as well as the symphonies of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler.
A little over three months after Destination… Out! was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, in mid-September 1963, Hutcherson taped his first session for Blue Note as a leader. It was a reunion of the Idle Moments group—in addition to the vibraphonist, Green, Henderson and Pearson, there was bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Al Harewood. It would remain squired away in the Blue Note vault for 36 years when it was released as The Kicker. Its principal pleasures lie in early versions of Duke Pearson’s hypnotic ‘Bedouin’ (the pianist would record it himself a year later for Wahoo) and a beautiful ballad, ‘Mirrors,’ written by a drummer who would become one of Hutcherson’s closest musical collaborators, Joe Chambers.
Why The Kicker remained unreleased for so long yields no definitive answer. Critic Marc Myers once speculated that it may have been because Blue Note boss Alfred Lion decided that Henderson’s ‘The Kicker,’ a burning piece of hard bop and recorded at the session, deserved as flashy a showcase as possible (Lion’s wish, if indeed he harboured such a wish, came true when Henderson recorded a smoking version with Horace Silver in the fall of 1964 for the pianist’s famous Song for My Father). I wonder if it wasn’t because what was recorded was too straight-ahead to properly inaugurate Henderson as a Blue Note leader.
Dialogue, recorded in April 1965, strikes as a more proper and correct coming-out party. A bracing mix of advanced, au courant originals (pianist Andrew Hill’s ‘Catta’ is both deeply hip and dangerous) and airy, avant-garde explorations by a band that was jaw dropping even by Blue Note’s standards: joining Hutcherson was Hubbard, tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers, Hill, the recently departed bassist Richard Davis and Chambers, Dialogues summed up, in stunning fashion, the totality of what made Hutcherson an exciting newcomer to the jazz scene. Components, taped two months later, was similarly expansive with Hubbard and Chambers as well as reedman James Spaulding, pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter.
Hutcherson’s next session, Happenings, dialed back the free jazz to put the spotlight on how he interacted with a rhythm section (Hancock, Cranshaw and Chambers, in this case). The brittle delicacy of the wonderous and ambient ‘Bouquet,’ in which the vibraphonist plays with the lightest of touches and often barely above a whisper, contrasted with the head-long rush of the modal ‘Head Shot.’
Stick-Up, which followed, is unique in Hutcherson’s sixties discography in that it was an expressly straight-ahead date. Instead of Chambers behind the kit, it’s Billy Higgins who was unofficially the in-house drummer for Blue Note at the time. McCoy Tyner is on piano, old pal Herbie Lewis is on bass and Henderson on tenor. It remains a gorgeous anomaly with the luminous ballad ‘Summer Night,’ a spirited take of Coleman’s calypso-like ‘Una Muy Bonita,’ the modal vamp of ‘Verse’ and the lickity-split of ‘8/4 Beat,’ complete with a wicked turnaround by Tyner back into the theme at the end of his last solo chorus.
The next time Hutcherson was at the Van Gelder Studio as a leader was on July 21, 1967. With Hancock, bassist Albert Stinson and Chambers, Hutcherson got six tracks down on tape.
They started with a Hutcherson bossa nova ‘Subtle Neptune.’ His line starts off with phrases of mellow ambiguity before resolving into a repeating figure of decision. As Hutcherson begins to solo, it’s clear that the structure he has written—one rooted in tried-and-true tension and release—is a fruitful one for thoughtful improvisation. Hear, for example, at about the 2:20 mark, how Hutcherson alights on a fluttering riff that resolves into a secondary riff with a harder edge. Hancock is inspired too, particularly in the moments before the release as he uses chordal patterns to build up energy that never tips over into bombast. He illustrates an almost impossibly light touch that belied the boldness of his phrasing and became his dominant style by the middle of 1967.
Twinning that sound with the etherealness of Hutcherson’s vibraphone and you had jazz that floated, like on the opening rubato thematic statement of ‘My Joy.’ As Chambers moves things into tempo, there’s a feeling of touching ground, a descent of the softest nature. Of the masters of the drumkit at the time, few, if any, had Chambers’ precision or the almost chamber-like hush to his sound (only Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet comes to mind as a similarly quiet drummer). In a recent essay on the drummer by Vinnie Sperrazza for his Substack, he captures this essentially quality to Chambers’ approach thusly: “Chambers is dry, cool, and focussed, which gives incredible insight and meaning to the moments when he opens up, gets louder and more active. In this balance, I detect a composerly intent.”
As Hutcherson and Hancock improvise on ‘My Joy,’ Chambers’ cymbal work—clean and airy—drives them. Like ‘Subtle Neptune,’ there’s a rise and fall to each chorus, bringing ever-shifting dynamics to their statements, both deeply involved in finding interesting things to play that are involving to the listener. Stinson, a musician making waves in the early cross-pollination of jazz and rock who died way too young, also gets a moment in the spotlight. His solo approaches ‘My Joy’ as an Indian raga with rhythmic glides up and down the bass’ neck, establishing him as part of the lineage of players like Eddie Gomez and Gary Peacock who were eschewing walking for a different gait on the bass.
The quartet cooks up a groove for a workout on the primary theme Hancock wrote for the soundtrack of Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language picture that was an art-house sensation and a harbinger of the “New Hollywood” that was emerging in the late sixties. Chambers kicks things off with a snare hit and settles into a light rock pulse. Stinson underlines it with a vamp that paraphrases the theme’s main melodic phrase. Hancock falls in accenting Stinson’s groovy line. Hutcherson then slides in with the theme.
When it comes time for him and Hancock to solo, we have, once again, through each A section, a peak and then a valley. The bridge is more ambiguous as Stinson and Chambers languidly poke around the rock feel. The improvisations are jaw-droppingly good. Hancock, in particular, builds chordal runs that never break the moment but push against any notion that this performance is a rote exercise of the boogaloo sound that had become a Blue Note signature. Chambers’ fills, which erupt seemingly out of thin air, add to the ambience of advanced musicianship that marks ‘Theme from Blow Up’ as a classic performance. It’s one of the critical stepping stones in the path to a jazz-rock fusion. Yet, it is an evolutionary step that would be only be realized in retrospect long after fusion was an entrenched sub-genre of jazz as the work of Hutcherson, Hancock, Stinton and Chambers in mid-July 1967 would only be released in 1979. Why this session, to be titled Oblique, was held back is inexplicable even by Blue Note’s standards.
The title track, one of two compositions that Chambers wrote, trades the often-placid mood of the first half of the session for a more extraverted flavour. The theme—more of a rhythmic idea—is dispensed with quickly. Hutcherson’s solo is an exercise in speed and force. Hancock begins his statement in a more mysterious mood before matching Hutcherson’s place. Chambers’ other composition, ‘Bi-Sectional,’ is entirely free. About three minutes in, Chambers moves to the tympani for Hutcherson to get behind the drumkit for a barrage of sound, the only time during the track where energy is the dominant principle as opposed to openness.
The final composition recorded sums up the special feeing of Oblique that makes it a highpoint in Bobby Hutcherson’s career: a balance of softness and sophistication, a mellowness that is not facile but erudite. With a deeply romantic theme written by Hutcherson played by himself and Hancock over a brushes-and-cross-sticks beat by Chambers, ‘Till Then’’s spell is furthered by the sweet resolution of its line, a rhapsodic moment that Hancock and Hutcherson both use to anchor their short solos.
A year after Oblique was recorded, Hutcherson had his first recoded encounter with tenor saxophonist Harold Land whose sound employed a searching, smooth sonority that fit in perfectly with Hutcherson’s and Chambers’ approaches. His work with Land is uniformly excellent (if you check out only one recording they made together, make it Total Eclipse with Chick Corea on piano and Reggie Johnson on bass). Oblique is too.