There are probably many practical reasons why vibraphone is still in the minority out of all the instruments usually associated with jazz. The difficulty of just spontaneously jumping into a jam session, and logistics of touring if one has not yet "made it," instantly come to mind. The good side effect from mallet instruments still being in the minority is that stylistically the field is wide open.
Although there have been others, when one thinks of the vibes, instantly the big three come to mind Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson each separated by a generation. With almost any other traditional jazz instrument in any given era the list of soloists who have artistically influenced others is at least three times as long.
Both in cadence and mannerisms the way is still wide open for the vibes, giving musicians exciting potential to really make it their own.
Oh Yeah is musician/educator Joe Baione’s second album. Here Joe works with a sextet featuring the interesting front line of tenor sax and trombone. The band has all worked together on Joe’s last album Superhero, which had featured Richard Lee in the front line on trumpet, here substituted by Jorge Castro’s tenor.
The album is made up of some standards and originals. Throughout the album, the sound is pristine. The producer for the album, Todd Barkan, had worked with vibraphone’s big three in the past. His knowledge of how to layer the sound makes it so that every voice is heard whether soloing or speaking ensemble, which further adds to the album’s appeal.
The album opens with an original, the album’s name sake "Oh Yeah." After a brief statement made by Joe, Toru Dodo’s piano takes flight. The bass is featured prominently, not in soloing, but in keeping an up-tempo pulse along with the rainstorm of Jerome Jenning’s hi-hats. What is interesting is that lately I have noticed bands that soar or groove, but you do not often get studio recordings where a band will do so together without solos being involved in the majority of the conversation. From the get-go, this band joyously flies together, not merely being linked by solos or waiting for a chance to. Towards the end of the song, Joe has a solo which shows not only his ability to do rapid runs, but to keep a shimmering crisp articulation.
"Down Fuzz" is a tribute to a lesser known Delaware vibraphonist Lem Winchester who had also been a policeman. The song, written by Lem, was arranged by Joe and his saxophonist father, Jim. It has a slinky blues feeling, established initially by vibes and piano. The piano conjures up the grit of the city which can always be washed away temporarily with a drink or two. The horns enter in and it is a crowded bar where everyone is in the same mood, the crowd and conversation, a nocturnal hipness. The sax solo is the lament we have all had, casually told at the table, the trombone picking up the conversation, a weary bee buzzing in agreement. Throughout the piece, the solos are never overly showy, which could wreck the tension of the piece. Joe’s solo at the end of the song shows that he and the rest of the band have the chops and taste, which comes with restraint, two elements not always found together even in some of the best players.
"The Stranger," one of the album’s originals, finds Joe playing Marimba. It starts in a sort of caffeinated samba, the horns dramatically slur in unison. With the piano comping, the steady tink-tink of drums and steady groove of bass, there is a tropical/tribal feel to the piece. The trombone returns mid-way through the piece, speaking in long lines, which fit in perfectly with the drama of the piece. The saxophone follows with a solo, which continues along the same line of thoughts. There is a bass solo accompanied by the galloping tin of hi-hats, after an increase of tempo the whole group rejoins in the main theme. This song shows too, that Joe as composer and bandleader is willing to take risks with diversity of style and execution, not merely offering up an album of fun blues-based heads, which would guarantee a certain audience.
Milt Jackson’s "Bag’s Groove" ("Bags" having been his nick-name) is covered, a daunting task for any vibe player, not so much for technical demands as song association. The best covers always retain the spirit of the song and composer, yet also incorporate the musician’s identity. In this way, to some extent every cover is a sort of collaboration. The song starts not with the familiar bouncing gait as one would expect but with a sanctified blues tinged piano statement. Then horns and vibes come in unison, piano punctuating in same feel as that with which it started the piece. There is a buoyant solo by Corcoran Holt’s bass, which leads back to the piano. As is performed here, I imagine this would be one of the band’s crown jewels in a live set.
There is a cover of Duke Ellington’s "Prelude to a Kiss." Here it is offered up as stately and blue. There is something almost vocalesque about Joe’s tone at different points in the song. Sometimes with ballad-type covers, they can fall apart with the slower tempos or become overly maudlin, also due to lack of momentum. With this song, the band shows its comfort zone is not merely in one type of tempoed piece. Also, rather than use flashy solos to demonstrate their interplay, it is with this slower number in a subtle way one realizes while listening how much then musicians are not just playing the piece, but truly with each other as well.
With vibraphone and this album, it is nice to hear good music and not think "This is good, it sounds like..." Here is the second album from an artist adding to a body of work on an instrument still in the minority.