Good vibrations

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The Yamaha YV2700G Vibraphone.
The Yamaha YV2700G Vibraphone.

Mention the word “vibraphone” to any jazz enthusiast and Lionel Hampton’s name will inevitably jump into the conversation. And not surprisingly, because he was one of the finest jazz vibraphone players of all time, along with Milt Jackson and the lesser-known Red Norvo.

Lionel Leo Hampton was born on 20th April 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky and spent his early childhood in Alabama. Following a move to Wisconsin, the young Lionel took his first drum lessons from an unlikely teacher – a Dominican sister at the Holy Rosary Academy near Chicago. By the age of twenty, Lionel had moved to California and was playing drums professionally. Apparently, one of his show-stopping antics was to twirl and juggle several pairs of drumsticks without losing the beat. In 1930, Hampton began experimenting with the vibraphone, an instrument which had been invented only a couple of years earlier.

Although Hampton wasn’t the first jazz musician to play the vibraphone, he was probably the first to develop an amazing dexterity on the instrument. He was a virtuoso player and was perhaps at his brilliant best on the famous Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet recordings of the 1930s.

If you’re not familiar with the vibraphone, you’ll probably be surprised at the sheer size of the thing. It has a range of three or four octaves and the sound is produced by aluminium bars arranged in two rows corresponding to the “black and white” notes of the piano keyboard. The player uses mallets made from a rubber core covered in yarn. Players use either two or four mallets, but some music demands the use of four. A vibraphone bar can “ring” for several seconds after it’s been struck, so under the bars there’s a damping mechanism controlled by a foot pedal. This consists of a felt pad that presses on the bars from underneath, causing them to rise momentarily.

The main visual feature of the vibraphone is the set of resonator tubes which are fitted under each bar. But the main acoustic feature of the vibraphone is rarely visible. It’s an electric motor that drives small rotating discs located at the top of each resonator tube. They produce a kind of vibrato effect which of course gives the instrument its name. The increasing popularity of the vibraphone in the 1930s and 1940s encouraged some classical composers to use it. The first was Alban Berg, who used it prominently in his 1937 opera Lulu.

Nathan Daughtrey (b. 1975): Vibraphone Concerto. Omar Tiznado (vib), Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa cond. Martin Lebel (Duration: 16:26; Video: 1080p HD)

Dr Nathan Daughtrey lives in North Carolina and he’s a professional percussionist, music educator and prolific composer with publications for percussion ensemble, concert band, orchestra and chamber ensembles.

This concerto dates from 2010 and was originally written for vibraphone and piano. There are two movements, entitled El Canto de la Noche (Night’s Song) and La Luz Encantada (Enchanted Light). The music was inspired by the poetry of the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda hence the Spanish titles. The first movement according to the composer, gives a musical impression of a starry night gradually becoming dark and rainy while the second movement is bright and sparking, with dance-like rhythms. It also provides a virtuosic work-out for the soloist. It’s immensely attractive and approachable music and soloist Omar Tiznado gives a thrilling performance.

Emmanuel Séjourné (b. 1961): Double Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone and Orchestra. Luis Osca (mar), Josep Furió (vib), Orquesta de València cond. Carlos Garcés (Duration: 28:47; Video: 720p HD)

The individualistic music of Emmanuel Séjourné (SAY-zhoor-NAY) was heard in Pattaya last week in the annual concert given by the SSMS Orchestra. Séjourné has composed several concertos for various percussion instruments.

This work dates from 2012 and it gives the opportunity to hear the combined sounds of the vibraphone and the rather larger marimba, a type of mellow-sounding xylophone. The first movement has a driving sense of rhythm, interspersed with more lyrical sections. The second movement is a song-like duet for the soloists accompanied by beautifully-written music for strings. It gradually turns into an elegant waltz. The third movement opens with an insistent ostinato on the marimba and basses, punctuated with vibraphone chords. It leads into a pleasing dance-like section which drives the work to a heroic conclusion.

Incidentally, as an unexpected encore, the soloists give a virtuosic and entertaining performance of a well-known piece by Rimsky-Korsakov, popularly known in the music business as “The Bum of the Flightle Bee”.