Most jazz combos feature a rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, fronted by a saxophonist or some other horn player. But at this Peterborough Jazz Club gig there was something refreshingly different. Centre-stage and pride of place stood an eye-catching vibraphone, king of metal-keyed percussion instruments.
Its aluminium bars arranged like those of a piano, the vibraphone used by Nat Steele in this concert had a range of three octaves, stood more than three feet off the ground, and was more than four feet in length. In his brilliant performance throughout the evening Nat used only two mallets, which meant that he was playing a single melodic line most of the time.
In just about every other musical instrument it’s the fingers that do the work. But with tuned percussion it’s the arms that move to produce sustained themes. And when it comes to playing flurries of notes at high velocity they have to move at lightning speed.
So that in Bluesology by Milt Jackson we heard the vibes both as a gently shimmering melody instrument and also in virtuosic runs of glittering, cascading notes. Particularly pleasing was the occasional imitation between Nat Steele’s riffs and those of the sensitive and inventive pianist Gabriel Latchin. Though Gabriel was playing an electric keyboard, an acoustic piano and a vibraphone have a surprising amount in common, as they’re both percussion instruments noted for producing sustained tunes.
The two other members of the rhythm section were Dario di Lecce on double bass and Steve Brown on drums. Throughout the evening Dario provided solos that the large audience clearly relished, many of them much higher and more tuneful than plucked bass solos usually are.
Steve’s drumming was equally phenomenal. In fact there were times when I looked up trying to identify the exotic percussion instruments he appeared to be using. Only to find that there were the familiar array of drums, cymbals, and high-hats, plus sticks and brushes, but used in original and novel ways.
In a programme inspired by the Modern Jazz Quartet we heard some fascinating numbers, many of them composed by the band’s director John Lewis. La Ronde was an extended suite with all four movements based around the same theme. While The Golden Striker was taken from his music for the film No Sun in Venice.
There were also unusual versions of jazz standards, enhanced by the unique timbre of the vibes. Like All the Things You Are, Softly as in the Morning Sunrise, and Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady.
REVIEW: JOE CONWAY