Saturday, 16 February 2013

Review: Bobby Hutcherson - Happenings

Bobby Hutcherson is probably my favourite vibraphone player. I say 'probably' as I love the music and playing of Gary Burton, but Hutcherson's sheer variety of sound in his work is absolutely incredible. Personally I'm a fan of his more avant-garde material, and his work from the 1970's in particular. But for a first Hutch album review, why not something a little less cerebral, and a little more easy to get into...

Bobby Hutchersons ‘Happenings’ marked a new direction for the vibraphonist. Moving away from the avant-garde and his adventurous compositions that had made his name, it’s sometimes seen as perhaps less important than the work that he recorded just before, and that he would create later. It’s a perhaps uninformed opinion, with the album being the first to present the vibesman as the soloist leading a conventional rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, instead of the experimentally focused larger groups he’d played with earlier in his career. As a consequence it’s probably one of the easiest of his albums to get into and also one of the the best introductions to his music.

Another first is that the entire album, barring one track, is composed by Hutcherson, whereas previously he had relied on other writers. Much of it is very good too, right from the stomping opener ‘Aquarian Moon’. It’s balanced nicely too, from the swinging of ‘Head Start’, to the soft and gentle ‘Bouquet’, while taking in funky Latin grooves on the excellent ‘Rojo’, and on ‘When You Are Near’, showcasing some strong ballad playing that also stands as Hutchersons best composition here, but somewhat frustratingly it’s also the shortest. The best overall though is the take on Herbie Hancocks classic ‘Maiden Voyage’, which has always been an outstanding piece and here is given a brilliant treatment. Hancock of course is here too, and he’s on fire as he always was throughout the sixties, with the remainder of the rhythm team being made up by Bob Cranshaw and Joe Chambers.

Most of the pieces in truth though are more nicely composed than being exceptional, but the playing on each of them is second to none, and it is this that elevates everything to sounding absolutely terrific. The only disturbance to this highly listenable and accessible music comes with the final track ‘The Omen’. An ambitious sprawl that sounds more at home with the far experimental music of his earlier records, its stop-start cacophony doesn’t sit at all with the rest of the album - and its likely to make most listeners confused as to what they’re hearing, having just experienced the much easier sounding grooves a few minutes earlier. Its inclusion here really on this record is a very big mis-step.

Having laid down highly memorable work on other Blue Note alumni’s recordings, such as Eric Dolphy’s much-lauded ‘Out To Lunch’ and Grant Green’s outstanding double-excellence of ‘Idle Moments’ and ‘Street Of Dreams’, Hutcherson with ‘Happenings’ launched himself as a more acceptably closer-to-the-mainstream artist, and the gamble largely paid off. Just over a year later the same band, with Cranshaw replaced by Albert Stinson, would go on to record Hutchersons ‘Oblique’. He and Hancock’s exquisite partnership would even better highlight just how good they could be together, and with the upping of the quality of the writing the session would be even better.

‘Happenings’ is Hutchersons bid for mainstream jazz acceptance and it works a treat. A classy recording, it’s one of the vibes players most easy and relaxed dates as a leader, and only one of two ever dates leading a quartet, as well being a simply great showcase for Hancock. For the best introduction to the Bobby Hutcherson, this is for most a good starting point – but there is much greater music worth exploring in Hutcherson’s catalogue for anyone wanting to dip more than just a toe in the water.


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