Bobby Hutcherson loves the simple life. Golfing. Fishing. Chopping wood. Hanging with his family. Playing ballads at sensuously slow tempos. He’s always been among the most physical of vibraphonists, often delivering notes with a flourish of body English. Offstage, the 66-year-old is just as animated, an engaging raconteur who punctuates stories with sweeping gestures and a vivid repertoire of facial expressions. Laughing easily and often with undisguised pleasure, he likes to answer questions with stories, wringing deep truths out of small details.
The quintessential postbop vibraphonist and an inspired composer, Hutcherson has frequently chased big ideas in his music. Since his recording debut in 1960 with pianist Les McCann on a Pacific Jazz compilation, he’s produced one of jazz’s richest and most rewarding discographies. He made many of his most celebrated albums during an explosively creative streak for Blue Note in the mid-1960s, though he recorded for the label through 1977, longer than any artist besides Horace Silver. His latest CD, For Sentimental Reasons, on the Swiss-based label Kind of Blue, is an exquisite quartet session with pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Al Foster in which Hutcherson lavishes attention on familiar melodies, a rare project devoted almost exclusively to American Songbook standards (besides ringers by his late musical partner, tenor saxophonist Harold Land, and Benny Golson).
“My wife Rosemary has always said to me, ‘Why don’t you do a recording of ballads? Because you really take your time when you’re playing ballads,'” says Hutcherson. “I’ve done all these albums where there’s crazy things going on, a lot of different time signatures, a lot of keys, taking on crazy theories and trying to make it sound like falling on my head. I said, ‘Let me go back to the really simple melodies.’ Those are the hard ones to get your personality through.”
It’s not hard to get a read on Hutcherson in the living room of his ranch-style house in the hamlet of Montara, set back a few hundred yards from the gleaming Pacific Ocean, about 20 miles south of San Francisco. His three sons all live within minutes, and just about every wall holds family photos, including one taken around 1906 in Georgia of his father as a youth surrounded by his formally dressed parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. A shrine with four lit votive candles occupies the fireplace, and a full-length window looks out back at a well-tended garden and 18-foot powerboat. Surrounded to the east by pines festooned with Spanish moss, the house sits on an acre of land that he bought after the release of San Francisco, his 1970 album with Harold Land, when Hutcherson found himself with a tidy sum in his pocket from his minor hit “Ummh.” At the time, the area was completely undeveloped.
“I’ve been to a lot of beaches around the world and to me this is the most beautiful,” he says. “It’s really long, panoramic. It’s got this really clean, granite sand. Everybody’s fishing and surfing. I used to come here all the time because I was living in the Haight. When ‘Ummh’ became a hit, I thought, what am I going to do with this money? I came down here, bought an acre of land for $10,000 and I built this house for $30,000. I’m 20 minutes from San Francisco, and about 20 minutes to the airport. For a long time I kept saying, ‘I think I made the right choice.'”
Born and raised in Pasadena, Hutcherson has been drawn to the beach since he was a kid. He first gained exposure in a combo with his high school buddy, bassist Herbie Lewis, when they landed a gig at a Sunset Strip coffee house called Pandora’s Box. At the end of the night, he’d drive the old family Cadillac west on Sunset to the Pacific Palisades and set up his vibes in the sand. “I’d sit there and play to the waves,” Hutcherson recalls. “I thought that was great. Then I started getting pulled over by this one cop. You could hear the car coming down the street, and he stopped me, saying, ‘Kid, what are you doing in this part of town?’ You know there’s no young little brothers who lived on that side of town. I said, ‘I’ve been to the beach.’ ‘Doing what?’ I said, ‘Playing my instrument, the vibraphone.’ ‘The what? What is that, like the saxophone?’ ‘No, let me open up the trunk and I’ll show you.’ So once a week I’d go to the beach, and I’d set the vibes up in the sand and play. The cop would always be at the same spot waiting and after a while he got used to me coming by. It would always be three o’clock in the morning and I’d wave and he’d wave, ‘Hey, yeah. Keep moving. Go back to Pasadena. Don’t make any stops.'”
“I don’t listen to very much music, but if I do, I’ll listen to Ravel or Renaissance composers. Hardly any jazz. I don’t listen to myself at all, because you get programmed. You hear something [and think], ‘Oh, I like that,’ or, ‘I don’t like that.’ So every time you get to a certain point, you’ll find yourself playing those ideas. I want to keep it open.”