The Lenore Raphael Quartet will combine sounds of jazz piano, bass, drums, and vibes in the kickoff virtual concert for the Basalt Regional Library, broadcast by Grass Roots TV on September 24, 2020 at 5:30 pm.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with piano, bass, and drums. But the vibraphone?
The history of the vibraphone is interesting, since it is a relatively young mallet instrument, first created by Herman Winteroff in the USA in the early 1920’s. He took a marimba with steel bars, and connected a motor to the cover disks at the upper end of the resonators by means of a spindle to create a ‘vox humane’ or tremelo sound to the instrument. Later a Chicago firm, Deagon, added a damper pedal and adjustable vibration speed. Relatively few changes have been made to the instrument since 1927.
To successfully perform on this instrument, one has to develop a four mallet technique (two mallets in each hand), mallet dampening (attack/release), pedal technique, and develop extensive knowledge of harmonic progressions in order to bring out melodic lines, improvise, etc. The vibraphone is used as a lead or improvisational instrument in ensembles.
Vaudeville and jazz are responsible for the initial popularity of this instrument. Lionel Hampton (1909-2002) a pianist, drummer known for his double stick tricks, and vibraphonist was first in line to use vibes in his band. When Louis Armstrong (1898-1971) heard Lionel and his California band, he fell in love with the sound and asked Lionel to accompany him on several recordings. During a 1930 recording session, Lionel was asked to improvise vibraphone solos. From that point on, vibraphone was Lionel’s main focus.
The vibraphone’s sweeping success in jazz was next passed to Benny Goodman (1901-1989) who added the instrument to his orchestra. Soon the vibraphone was heard in jazz sextets, quartets, and dance bands all around the country. For a detailed account of vibraphonists and more history about the instrument, read and listen to “Feeling the Vibes: The Short History of a Instrument” from NPR’s Take Five: A Jazz Sampler series.
When listening to NPR’s suggested recordings, note the differences in the performance styles of Lionel, Armstrong, Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, Bobby Hutcherson, and Stefon Harris.
Jazz was responsible for the initial popularity of the vibraphone, but it has found footing in repertoire for orchestra, wind ensemble, and percussion ensemble. Many composers have written compositions for solo vibraphone as well.
Darius Milhaud’s Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone and Orchestra, Op. 278 (1947) is an electrifying composition that affords its listeners the opportunity to hear the contrast of color/timbre between the two mallet instruments, the marimba and vibraphone. I recommend the following YouTube performances for listening/viewing, although the video is somewhat blurred.
As you listen/view, be aware of the demanding four mallet technique, plus dexterity, required for performing this piece. And don’t forget you have a pedal to control as well!
For solo vibraphone repertoire, I suggest listening/viewing a composition entitled Blues for Gilbert by Mark Glentworth—a truly soothing and beautiful sound that will erase your tensions of the day.
I hope this history of the vibraphone will enhance your enjoyment of the Lenore Raphael Quartet virtual performance of songs from the Great American Songbook, including blues, ballads, and up-tempo jazz classics.