I’ve always loved the sound of the vibraphone. Both seductive and celestial, it can sound transparent, cool, and airy, yet it’s capable of filling a room with a soothing warmth. Invented around 1920, this unique instrument soon became a fixture in dance bands and was brought to prominence by jazz musicians like Red Norvo, Lionel Hampton, and Milt Jackson.
The vibraphone has aluminum bars, which give it a different sound than a marimba, which has wooden bars. The African ancestor of the marimba is the balafon, which emerged long before these western versions of the mallet instrument.
On this Spotify playlist, we showcase some of my favorite jazz vibes players and enjoy the range of sounds and moods of this wonderful instrument.
- Bobby Hutcherson – “Delilah”: Bobby Hutcherson burst upon the jazz scene in the early 1960’s with a number of great Blue Note albums. He discovered the vibraphone in Pasadena, California, while walking by a record store where Milt Jackson was playing. This track is from a later album he recorded for Verve Records.
- Steve Nelson Quartet – “The Song Is You”: Steve Nelson began recording in the 1970’s, and by the 1990’s was working with Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, and other top names. Here he plays Jerome Kern’s “The Song is You” at breakneck speed.
- Cal Tjader – “Soul Sauce”: Cal Tjader was a fabulous jazz vibraphonist who added a lot of tropical rhythms into his mix. Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, this 1964 album’s title track (“Soul Sauce” aka “Guachi Guaro”) on Verve was a massive hit for Tjader. It featured the crème de la crème of Latin and jazz musicians from New York and L.A. (Poncho Sanchez, Clare Fischer, Willie Bobo, Richard Davis, Jimmy Heath, Armando Peraza) and has been covered by other artists and remixed by DJ’s (I like Carl Cox’s remix). The original still has a very solid and compelling groove.
- Gary Burton, Chick Corea – “Desert Air”: A song from an early duet album on ECM. I have featured it on balmy winter days when the Santa Ana winds blow hot from the deserts.
- Warren Wolf – “Setembro”: I first heard the talented Wolf playing piano with vocalist Rachael Price. A fine musician who is equally adept at both piano and vibes, Wolf records for Detroit’s Mack Avenue label.
- Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, et al – “Bags’ Groove (Take 1)”: This long early 1950’s classic was recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s parent’s living room in Hackensack, New Jersey—before the famous Blue Note and Prestige Records engineer built his temple of sound in Englewood Cliffs. Miles, Monk, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke were there to make this one of the greatest recordings of the song. Milt Jackson’s nickname was “Bags,” by the way.
- Dave Pike – “Solar”: Detroit native Dave Pike toured Latin America and Japan before settling in Los Angeles, where he performed in the many clubs here in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He also spent a number of years in Europe leading the Dave Pike Set. Here he covers Miles Davis’s “Solar.”
- Jacky Terrasson, Stefon Harris – “Titi Boom”: French pianist Jacky Terrasson and vibes master Stefon Harris have joined together on a number of fine albums. A graduate of the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, Harris is also a great marimba player. This song is a Terrasson original.
- Roy Ayers – “Well You Needn’t”: Roy Ayers started as a straight-ahead vibes player, but transitioned into a funk and acid jazz musician, gaining a new, younger, and wider audience. This Monk song comes from an earlier album.
- Joe Locke, Geoffrey Keezer Group – “Naima”: A solid vibes player based in New York City, Locke has been featured on albums by Eddie Daniels, Dianne Reeves, the Beastie Boys, Rod Stewart, and Jerry Gonzales—attesting to the versatility of the vibraphone and the way Locke plays it. He was inducted into the WVC (World Vibes Congress) Hall of Fame in 2018.
Bonus video: Tito Puente – “Maria Cervantes” Live: Although known primarily as a great arranger and timbales player, Tito Puente happens to be a fine marimba and vibes player, too. Check him out playing vibes in this video:
Banner image of Warren Wolf by Anna Webber, courtesy of Mack Avenue Records.