Aside from being in shock that Bobby Hutcherson is gone, I struggle to figure out a way to summarize his musical contributions. Among all the great musicians in jazz history, there is a sub-set of those who maintain unique voices, yet have the versatility to seamlessly integrate into a wide variety of environments, who have equal measures of sensitivity and fire, restraint and chops, melodicism and harmonic sophistication, mastery of their instruments yet capacity to transcend those limitations and simply use those instruments as a mechanism for transmitting something deep, directly from the soul. Bobby Hutcherson’s legacy could be defined in terms of his contributions as a vibraphonist (and marimbist), jazz soloist, and/or composer, but for me his music will always be defined by the way his infectious warmth and rugged creative searching shattered any listener’s capacity to put the resulting music into a rigid box.
Indeed my development as a jazz musician is dotted with important, ear-opening moments that feature Bobby. Some are referenced below, like hearing Jackie McLean’s Destination . . . Out for the first time in an LP listening station at the Hartt School with Jimmy Greene, Kris Allen and Jason Berg while I was a teenager studying at the Artists’ Collective. Some are not, like Tom Brislin hipping me to Herbie Hancock’s “Theme From Blow-Up” (as played on Bobby’s Oblique album) or hearing Joe Henderson’s Mode for Joe for the first time, or picking up the Color Schemes record at the local library and hearing Bobby’s incredible interplay with Mulgrew Miller (and . . . okay, now I’m cheating). Suffice it to say that it’s challenging to narrow down to the point that I’m omitting not only great albums but entire collaborative histories of his important work with Andrew Hill, Dexter Gordon, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Cowell, and others. We’ll miss him tremendously, but what a body of work.
So without any further ado:
1 ) “Little B’s Poem” from Components
Written for his then-young son, Bobby’s best-loved composition is 100% deserving of that recognition. A lovely waltz that, in this performance, manages to be dramatically passionate and liltingly gentle at the same time. In addition to Bobby, there are gorgeous solos by James Spaulding on flute and frequent playing partner Herbie Hancock on piano. The rhythm section ebbs and flows amazingly, thanks to the sensitivity of bassist Ron Carter and debatably Bobby’s most important collaborator of the 1960s, drummer Joe Chambers.
2 ) “Khalil the Prophet” from Destination . . . Out by Jackie McLean
Because of the diversity of Bobby’s artistry, it’s difficult to find a single context in which we hear everything he has to offer. A case could be made, though, that we get pretty close on this album, Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond, and Grachan Moncur, III’s Evolution, the three cutting-edge albums featuring J-Mac, Grachan and Bobby together. We hear Bobby take an authoritative solo after comping for the two horns with assertiveness and sensitivity that render other chord-playing instruments wholly unnecessary and show why he was so valued as an alternative to piano or guitar in groups like those of Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. With all due respect to Gary Burton, it is in this music that I hear the direct antecedent of the comping of Joe Locke, Bryan Carrott and so many other modern vibraphonists serving as the sole chord-playing instrument in a rhythm section while also functioning as major soloists.
3 ) “Goin’ Down South” from San Francisco
This album is another great example of his collaboration with saxophonist Harold Land. It’s a little weird not to include one of Bobby’s own compositions on this list, but this performance of Joe Sample’s tune to my ears stands along “Cantaloupe Island,” “The Sidewinder,” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” among the most potent backbeat tunes in the straight-ahead jazz lexicon.
4 ) “Ice Cream Man” from Solo/Quartet
I have to thank Chris Dingman for introducing me to this tune when, as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, he arranged it for the Wesleyan Percussion Ensemble, opening for Bobby when Jay Hoggard brought his friend and mentor to perform on campus in 2002. This is a multi-tracked solo mallet percussion extravaganza, beautiful, haunting, and deep – I have yet to listen to this (which I’ve probably done hundreds of times by this point) without hearing a nuance I’ve missed on previous occasions.
5 ) “Herzog” from Total Eclipse
I’ve assigned this tune to student ensembles often enough to gain an even further appreciation of how tricky it is, and thus how remarkable it is that Bobby, Harold Land, Chick Corea, Reggie Johnson, and Joe Chambers make it sound utterly effortless.
6) “Step Lightly” from The Kicker
Anyone fond of my writing for vibes might want to check out this record as well as Grant Green’s Idle Moments for a glimpse of my point of reference. My extended Know Thyself suite, in particular, draws very direct inspiration from the very particular saxophone-guitar-vibraphone blend that Bobby, Grant, and Joe Henderson manage to achieve on these sessions, with this lovely track as a particularly inspiring example for me.
7 ) “Mandrake” from Iron Man (sometimes issued as Memorial Album) by Eric Dolphy
As much as I love Bobby’s work on Dolphy’s iconic Out to Lunch album, this more obscure record is actually my favorite. Something about the ensemble blend is deeply moving to me, and the great feature spots by Bobby, Eric and Woody Shaw certainly don’t hurt.
8 ) “Now” from Now!
This lovely composition documents several important things, including the beginning of Bobby’s working relationship with pianist Kenny Barron, his wonderful sensitivity on ballads, and maybe most significantly the beginning of his work with choral music and less common orchestrations, something even more evident elsewhere on this cutting-edge album.
9 ) “Oatmeal” from Plays the Truth by Les McCann Ltd.
When I was in my early 20s I was given a two-record compilation of 1960s recordings on the Pacific Jazz label, and through several tracks on that I discovered what a strong, swinging (a la Milt Jackson, though with his own sound) straight-ahead vibraphonist Bobby was on the West Coast both before he made it to NY and established himself in more “progressive” musical environments and subsequently (on Gerald Wilson recordings, for example). This hard-swinging blues tune from 1960 nicely represents that vital facet of his musical personality.
10 ) “Kiss to the Skies” from Beyond the Wall by Kenny Garrett
Given how heavily this list represents the 1960s, it seems appropriate to wrap this list up by showing how long Bobby kept his artistic vitality. Recorded 10 years ago, this searing Kenny Garrett date (featuring the late Mulgrew Miller, the pianist on the first Bobby Hutcherson record I ever heard) blends Bobby’s vibes excellently with the saxophones of Kenny and Pharaoh Sanders.