Fond Memories Abound at Hutcherson’s New York Memorial

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George Cables (left) and Joe Lovano take part in a tribute concert to vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson on Jan. 28 in New York City. Hutcherson, who died in August 2016, would have turned 76 this year.

(Photo: Ernest Gregory)

A standing-room-only crowd filled the underground sanctuary of midtown Manhattan’s St. Peter’s Church to commemorate the musical legacy of the late Bobby Hutcherson, who passed away Aug. 15, 2016, in his Montara, California, home. The Jan. 28 memorial, just a day following what would have been the beloved vibraphonist’s 76th birthday, featured a host of musical acolytes and disciples performing compositions associated with the innovative mallet man beneath photos projected on the wall behind the altar of the church that has long served the jazz community.

The program, dubbed Bobby Hutcherson—In Celebration Of A Life Well Spent, got off to an auspicious start, with concert coproducer Todd Barkan, a longtime Hutcherson associate, introducing pianist McCoy Tyner, who was greeted with a roaring ovation, as he slowly ambled across the length of the bandstand to take his place at the piano.

Tyner introduced his own signature song, “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” injecting a bit of melancholy into his improvised prelude, before being joined by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who blew the well-known melodic line with authoritative aplomb. The duo, sans rhythm section backing, gave a more spacious, somewhat ethereal interpretation to the piece that was apropos of the setting.

Concert coproducer Michael Cuscuna lauded Hutcherson as “an extraordinary human being,” extolling his “Zen-like character” before introducing the quartet of Joe Locke, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams and Victor Lewis. Turning to the trio whose members had often performed with Hutcherson, Locke pointed his four mallets upward to the projected portrait of Hutcherson and announced in a soft voice, “This is for you, Bobby.” Launching into Hutcherson’s “Highway One,” the vibraphonist set up a bright medium-up tempo that had the rhythm section swinging hard from start to finish.

Locke introduced his dedicatory “Make Me Feel Like It’s Raining” (the title of which stems from a Hutcherson interview quote) testifying to the profound influence the master vibraphonist had on his musical development by noting that “Bobby, more than anyone, made me want to reach. I found my own voice by failing miserably at trying to sound like Bobby Hutcherson.”

Played at a contemplatively slow reflective tempo, with just Barron at the piano, the piece’s achingly beautiful mood was a fitting tribute to the man for whom it was written.

The quartet, with Williams and Lewis back, followed up playing “’Til Then,” interjecting a Brazilian flavor into the lilting Hutcherson melody, first heard on the vibraphonist’s Oblique album. With Locke thoughtfully quoting “Never Let Me Go” in his improvisation, the ensemble delivered a thoroughly optimistic performance to conclude their set, after which Woody Shaw III, son of trumpeter Woody Shaw, stepped up to the podium to speak of the paternal closeness he felt with Hutcherson, before reading a message from the late vibraphonist’s family that noted how “Bobby loved coming to New York to play.”

Young Chicago-born vibraphonist Joel Ross was then joined by trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Victor Lewis. Cables, a perennial Hutcherson band mate, declared, “It’s a pleasure and honor to celebrate the life of Bobby Hutcherson …. So this is from the heart.”

Performing Hutcherson’s iconic jazz waltz, “Little B’s Poem,” the quintet opened with a slow deliberate reading of the jubilant melody, then took things up a notch in a swinging rendition of the jazz classic on which Ross proved himself to be a most capable heir to Hutcherson on his instrument.

Joe Chambers, who appeared with Hutcherson on a multitude of Blue Note recordings and countless live performances on drums, eulogized his longtime friend from the podium and then took Ross’s place at the vibraphone to perform Hutcherson’s reflective “Visions” (which he recorded with the vibraphonist on the Spiral album nearly a half century ago) with sensitive accompaniment from the trio. Ross and Henderson then returned to the stage to end the quintet’s set swinging hard on Hutcherson’s “Teddy,” an amiable melody written for his son.

Nodding to Hutcherson’s tenure as a member of the Timeless All Stars, the stellar sextet featuring the vibraphonist with saxophonist Harold Land, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Higgins, the assembled unit of George Coleman, Steve Davis, Mike LeDonne, Steve Nelson, Ray Drummond and Billy Drummond rekindled the group’s unique sound, opening with the ballad “My Foolish Heart” an finishing with a hard-bop romp through “Tenor Madness”.

Pianist Todd Cochran (aka Bayete), who often performed as a member of Hutcherson’s West Coast quartet as a teenager, spoke of the fruitful mentoring he received under the bandleader’s guidance, recalling Hutcherson’s dictum that when playing, he was “trying to reach heaven” with his music.

Joined by bassist John Leftwich and drummer Michael Carvin, Cochran began his set by rhythmically chanting the letters of Hutcherson’s name as an introduction to the vibraphonist’s powerful anthem “Herzog,” which was followed by his own “Lights Out,” a moving tribute to Hutcherson possessing an otherworldly splendor.

The trio then closed out with Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” a feature for Leftwich’s bowed bass and Carvin’s crackling snare and subtle cymbal work.

The event ended on an uplifting note with vibraphonist Bill Ware, accompanied by the multinational trio of Colombian pianist Hector Martignon, Panama-born bassist Alex Blake and Cuban drummer Francisco Mela laying down a dancing Afro-Cuban groove to bassist James Leary’s “Remember To Smile,” the festive march from Hutcherson’s Conception: The Gift Of Love album, while the projected image of a beaming Bobby looked out from above on the many musicians and music lovers there to celebrate his life and legacy. DB



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