Lionel Hampton: an abiding inspiration /1

A selective tour of the Hamp discography, bringing to life, blow by blow, some of the vibraphonist's greatest moments on record. Part 1

It was the last night of the 1979 Capital Jazz Festival at Alexandra Palace. The popular fusion group Spyro Gyra was the headline act on the electric stage, whilst the Lionel Hampton Big Band was in full swing a few hundred yards away. Suddenly, the power went … stage and music-stand lights, amplification systems, everything. Spyro Gyra was silenced, but Hamp’s band didn’t miss a beat. Only organist Wild Bill Davis was affected … the rest of the band played on, and the audience jived on the grassy slopes around the platform, whilst the light from the street-lamps outside the park spilled in and the stars looked down. (Poetic innit?) It’s a magical memory of the only time I heard Hampton in person.

I’d started by being mesmerised by the brilliant, sweaty, tirelessly smiling Gene Krupa, but Hamp could match him for showmanship and excitement, and I’ve never lost my affection for his work

Nearly two decades earlier, Hamp had been one of the musicians who kick-started my interest in jazz, thanks to BBC TV Sunday afternoon screenings of films like The Benny Goodman Story and Pennies From Heaven. A novice drummer in the Boys Brigade, I’d started by being mesmerised by the brilliant, sweaty, tirelessly smiling Gene Krupa, but Hamp could match him for showmanship and excitement, and I’ve never lost my affection for his work. This article, which is intended as a personal and subjective celebration of his music, will be light on biographical information: that is available from numerous encyclopaedias and websites. For similar reasons, on the whole I’ll be ignoring his most famous recordings, including those with the Benny Goodman Quartet, and hope I’ll be introducing some of you to performances that may get overlooked.

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My desert island discs would include the 15-minute performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust from a Just Jazz concert in Pasadena in August 1947 by a band billed as Lionel Hampton’s All-Stars, a dazzling “galaxy of talent” (as Ronnie Scott used to say) comprising Charlie Shavers (t), Willie Smith (as), Corky Corcoran (ts), Tommy Todd (p), Barney Kessel (g), Slam Stewart (b, v) and Lee Young (d). Shavers, Smith and Stewart play brilliantly, seeming to demonstrate post-modernist irony avant la lettre, with Shavers and Smith proving that it is possible to play a wind instrument with tongue firmly in cheek. Each solo deserves detailed analysis, but this piece is above all Hampton’s feature. He displays an adroit structural sensibility, slotting in sly quotes (underlined by delighted grunts, of course) which are woven into the developing shape of the piece. I know many people consider that quotations exhibit a lack of imagination, but it depends on how the quotations are used. Like Sonny Rollins (and Stewart for that matter) Hampton could interpolate fragments of other tunes, suggesting a kaleidoscope of varied paths and possibilities, without disrupting the logical flow of his improvisation.

He opens Stardust with lush, stately chords, the resonator fans on full shimmer, ushering in Smith’s slinky solo. Once everyone, bar Young, has had their turn, Hamp takes his solo. After incorporating his favourite Pretty Baby quote he doubles the tempo, then doubles it again whilst Stewart doggedly maintains the original pace until the ensemble sidles in at the same tempo. Hamp’s vibes and stamping foot continue at high speed until, with a dramatic thump, he slams on the brakes for a melodramatic closing flourish: a corny routine maybe, but tremendously exciting and effective.

I’ve listened to this version of Stardust innumerable times since I bought the 1970 Coral reissue‚ and it still makes my toenails twinkle with its good humour and consummate musicianship. This recording provided a relatively rare opportunity to stretch a number beyond the limits of a single 78 side, and Hamp and the band certainly grasp it. The whole track is replete with adroit architectural sensibility and sly quotes – underlined by delighted grunts in Hamp’s case – woven into the developing shape of the piece. (On other tunes from that concert, Hampton played drums as well as vibes, or joined Milt Buckner on piano, or was omitted altogether. The whole shebang is highly enjoyable.)

One of the most intriguing and unexpected sessions he recorded came during the big band’s first tour of Europe, in 1953. (This was such a success that they were booked to return the following year.) On 28 September three LPs’ worth of tracks were recorded at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. Most were by the full band, but Hamp downsized to a three-piece for Always and September In The Rain. The trio had a rather unexpected instrumentation too: Billy Mackell on electric guitar and “Monk” Montgomery (using his given name, William) on electric bass, an instrument that was fairly unusual for the time. He was a pioneer of its use.

Each performance begins with a lengthy vibes prelude. On Always Hamp typically grunts encouragement to himself, circling towards Irving Berlin’s theme, dropping in and out of tempo until Montgomery comes in strongly. Hamp states the tune in full before setting off on a swinging improvisation, using his favoured trick of increasing his tempo whilst the rhythm section stays more or less put, easing into a variation on the theme of Flying Home and ending up in a delightfully rambling coda.

September follows the same structural pattern, but the prelude is funkier, the leader’s famed foot-stomping well in evidence to help drive things along. There’s what sounds like a nod to George Shearing’s group when the bass and guitar join in and, about halfway through, Hampton’s phrasing acquires a modernist tinge for a few bars. Hamp was never a stick-in-the-mud, and was one of those older musicians who listened to new things, notably absorbing and developing elements of proto-rock ’n’ roll. It’s great fun to spot the quotes and allusions, which on this track include Blues In The Night, I’m Beginning To See The Light and Stormy Weather.

During a stopover in Paris in March 1955, Hamp participated in a session at the Scole Cantorum, recorded by Eddie Barclay, who original issued the results on his own label. These performances have been available as part of the extensive Gitanes Jazz Productions Jazz In Paris series, identifiable by digipaks featuring wonderfully evocative black-and-white nocturnal photographs of the City of Lights in the 40s and 50s, marred only by overly-large blocks of colour giving the title and artist details, and the sponsor’s logo. On two separately issued CDs, titled Lionel Hampton And His French New Sound Volume 1 (Gitanes 549-405) and Volume 2 (549-406) Hamp was out of his usual context but certainly not out of his comfort zone or his class.

Using a borrowed vibraphone, flanked on some tunes by horns including Nat Adderley and Benny Bailey from his own band, but with a constant European rhythm section of pianist Rene Urtreger, bassist Guy Pedersen, drummer Jean-Baptiste Reilles (plus Sacha Distel on guitar on three of the pieces) he was evidently having a great time. Voice Of The North, the uptempo first track on volume 1, is another in the mould of the classic Flying Home and sounds as if the recording began mid-performance as it goes straight into Hamp’s solo with no opening ensemble statement, though the band joins in for a rousing closing chorus. With some fine solos from the front line it gets the session off to a fine start. Distel, best-remembered these days as a smooth singer, confessed to being intimidated by playing with Hamp but follows the first vibes solo with a very creditable guitar improvisation.

The 12-minute A La French finds the brass and reeds sitting out, and again the start suggests that the recording as released has had some opening material edited out. To begin with Distel solos rather self-effacingly but soon finds his confidence. After more from Hampton, Urtreger makes a constantly-renewing and nimble contribution, sporting with the tempo before the leader returns for another witty and varied solo. The horns are back for the final two tracks, Crazy Rhythm (with some nice fat riffs from the band in the closing choruses) and another ebullient Hamp original, Zebu.

You can argue that Hamp never challenges himself (beyond keeping going for the extended durations of several of the tracks) but even his personal clichés never pall for me as he always executes them with such panache, enthusiasm and evident pleasure

Volume 2 comprises three standards (All The Things You Are, I Cover The Waterfront and Night And Day) and Hamp’s Red Ribbon. Hampton continues to employ his much-favoured device of increasing his tempo whilst the basic rhythm stays put, an example Distel follows on All The Things. This is welcome since Pedersen and Reilles mostly confine themselves to stating the beat in a somewhat pedestrian fashion even when they attempt to follow the leader’s accelerations. Waterfront has a nice tenor solo by Maurice Meunier and more twinkling piano. Red Ribbon is the liveliest piece of the set, with solos from members of the horn-section (Meunier on clarinet, William Boucaye on baritone sax, Dave Amram on French horn and Adderley, Bailey and Bernard Hulin on trumpets) as well as Urtreger, though the vibes still get the lion’s share of the time. For Night And Day the horns sit out again and Distel returns, seeming more confident here, essaying more complex phrasing and chords.

You can argue that Hamp never challenges himself (beyond keeping going for the extended durations of several of the tracks) but even his personal clichés never pall for me as he always executes them with such panache, enthusiasm and evident pleasure.

See part two of Lionel Hampton: an abiding inspiration

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