In 1999, as Gary Burton was celebrating his fiftieth year as a vibraphonist, the vibraphone itself turned seventy-five years old. That same year, two legendary vibes players died: Milt (“Bags”) Jackson and Red Norvo. Burton felt the time was right to pay tribute to the instrument and the players who pioneered jazz vibraphone. The result is his recent album on Concord, For Hamp, Red, Bags, And Cal.
“Lionel Hampton really popularized the instrument and made people take it seriously,” Burton says. “Without Hamp, the vibraphone might have just passed out of history as some kind of experiment with mallet instruments. Red Norvo started as a xylophonist and marimbist and didn’t pick up vibes until 1943, which was the year I was born. He brought a sophistication and finesse to the instrument.
“I’ve always felt that Milt was the single most influential vibraphonist in the instrument’s history. He made the vibraphone sound more expressive by switching to softer mallets, using a slow vibrato, and using more legato phrasing. Cal Tjader’s contribution was not so much for his vibraphone playing but for pioneering Latin jazz. But he made a big contribution in terms of showing that the vibraphone is not just a jazz instrument.”
The album includes tunes associated with all four players. Burton uses elements of each vibraphonist’s style, such as Jackson’s blues influence, Hampton’s exuberant swing, Tjader’s sensuous Latin groove, and Norvo’s sophistication. But Burton never merely imitates; he makes each tune his own and shows why many consider him the most significant vibes player of all time.