Filling the hole with the mallet man

When Lionel Hampton died on the final day of August, I reacted, as I so often do when a jazz great dies, by pulling out all the music I can find from that artist in my jazz collection, and spending hours reliving the career -- the progress, the changing side musicians, the moments of my first discoveries, favorite tunes.

Step Two of this habit usually requires revisiting the music of another musician who shares some similarity with the deceased, probably in search of reassurance that the traditions of those similarities will be preserved and expanded.

Hamp, the elder statesman, was first in line for me when fellow vibraphonist Milt Jackson died in 1999 and, now that Hamp is gone, Gary Burton moves up into first place. It's taken him about 40 years, but, as I see it, Burton now sits at the pinnacle of the vibraphonists' pyramid, closely followed by the inimitable Bobby Hutcherson.

By the time I started paying close attention to him, Burton already had been at it for well longer than a decade. I'd listened to dozens of recordings in which he figured as a sideman, but my ear at that time wasn't tuned to his frequency. Then, in 1973, there arrived in my local record shop "The New Quartet" on ECM, and I began to appreciate the newer approach to vibraphone, an approach which built on the output of the likes of Hampton and Jackson, but took the inherent style of the instrument to a different region of musical possibility.

Four cuts on the eight-cut album took my fancy -- "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly," "Olhos de Gato, "Nonsequence," and "Mallet Man." And I spent hours listening to some of the tricky time signatures, the spare, yet full arrangements, and the juiciness of the sound of the ensemble, produced by a mere four instruments.

But it has been "Mallet Man" that's held my ear for the past 30 years, because it contains perhaps the most difficult and entertaining bass solo I've ever heard on wax, performed by Abraham Laboriel. And that's high praise coming from me, because, as a bassist myself, I never cared much for bass solos, preferring the more steadfast (and, admittedly, old-fashioned) role of the bassist as part of the rhythm section who holds down the bottom. Perhaps it's that I'm not that good a bassist, but the trick is not in the notes, all of which I can handle. It's the tricky time, as Burton drops into a rhythm-section role and sends out temporal signals that change the landscape every four or eight bars. And the tune gallops. After 30 years, I still can't play along with the record.

But, under Burton's guiding hand, each tune on this recording presents its unique challenges. There's no need for individual exposition here, because the album remains in print and, standing as Burton's first outing on ECM, marked the beginning of a long association with that label.

Oh, and about those dozens of cuts I mentioned before, where Burton did sideman duty: try the names of these session leaders or co-leaders on for size: George Shearing, Stan Getz, Larry Coryell, Chick Corea, Stephane Grapelli and Keith Jarrett.

But that's not resume padding. Burton is also a music educator. He joined the faculty of Boston's Berklee School of Music in 1971 and has remained active, as many great jazz musicians have, in shepherding our music into its second century of good health.

Burton has worked the trenches and the halls of academia, and he's developed a nimbleness while swinging four mallets that defines his style and makes him sound like an army of vibraphonists when such an army is required to liberate the composition.

Also recommended is "A Genuine Tong Funeral" [RCA, 1967], providing, of course, that you can find a copy. The most recent information I have is that it is no longer in print here in the U.S., but my European and Asian friends may have better luck. The album is a suite composed by Carla Bley and its theme explores attitudes toward death. It's a heavy subject, but there are moments of humor, and the recording rewards repeated listenings.

Now that the Mallet Man has moved up a notch in the vibes hierarchy, it's a good opportunity to dig into his more obscure recordings. I intend to. Join me.