Bobby Hutcherson @ Yoshi's
Bobby Hutcherson isn't the flashiest vibraphonist around. He doesn't leap about the way someone like Stefon Harris does, putting on a show of physical gymnastics to match the musical cartwheels coming from his keys. That sort of thing is for the young. At age 60, what Hutcherson has is very different. He has authority. When he bangs out a line, no other living player can match Hutcherson's absolute conviction, and few can command such reverent attention from a nightclub audience. In the second set of the second night in a five-day stint at Yoshi's in Oakland, Hutcherson and an all-star combo carried that sensibility into a group context. The quintet delivered an attractive mix of standards and originals that offered few pyrotechnics but was a marvelous display of bop fundamentals.
The group, which included James Spaulding on alto sax and flute, Renee Rosnes on piano and the dynamite rhythm pairing of bassist Rufus Ried and drummer Victor Lewis, could have easily been mistaken for a longtime working band rather than a summit of leaders. Lewis in particular was locked in tight, providing constant swinging propulsion with rhythms that were rich in complexity but never a distraction from the band's overall sound.
Hutcherson's playing was dextrous, shifting effortlessly from vibraphone to marimba and back again, blending rippling lines and staccato bursts in a way that made even demanding solos sound easy. He's a long way removed from the avant-garde these days, but never failed to keep the music challenging as well as engaging. Hutcherson was simply beautiful in an energetic version of Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing", weaving in and out of the changes with perfect fluidity before tossing off some distinctly Monkish phrases. The happiness of this performance and Hutcherson's own classic "Little B's Poem" was nicely balanced with the tender balladry of Herbie Hancock's "Chan's Song" and a compelling modal statement of "I Only Have Eyes for You".
Some of the audience's loudest responses were reserved for Spaulding, whose nimble phrasing ranged from rough-textured swirls to jump-blues honking, even incorporating a pretty good impression of Monk's longtime associate Charlie Rouse on "Bemsha Swing" and some nice flute work on three of the set's seven tunes. But Spaulding's shining moment came in a touching, dignified read of "Isfahan", a sax feature from Duke Ellington's Far East Suite.
Rufus Reid may have been a bit underutilized in this set, getting only one solo but acting as a steady force throughout the evening. His impeccable time was a perfect foil to Lewis' drumming. Renee Rosnes played wonderfully and was featured often, delivering several sprightly, rolling piano solos that had consistently nice flavors. She did a fine job of keeping the quintet's juices flowing, but somehow lacked the charisma of her bandmates on this night.
The midpoint of the set and highlight of the evening was a burning, Africanized jam, unfortunately never identified. One look across the scowling faces of the quintet promised that whatever was coming was going to be heavy. While Lewis laid down a big, intricate rhythm and Spaulding's flute got into an exotically funky space, Hutcherson let loose with a fiercely swinging solo that was followed up seamlessly by Rosnes. The song also contained the evening's only gimmick: a brilliant display of stick wizardry in which Hutcherson simultaneously laid down a deep marimba beat and used his mallets as a percussion instrument unto themselves, much like an old-time spoon player.
If there was one real letdown in the concert, it was the use of Hutcherson's lovely "Houston St. Thursday Afternoon" as an exit theme rather than a featured performance. Slow and bluesy, evocative and thoughtful, the tune was among the most beautifully rendered of the night and deserved more than the one brief solo allotted to Spaulding's flute.