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Mallet Men: The State of Jazz Vibraphone 2011

Stefon Harris, Warren Wolf, Chris Dingman, Matt Moran and more reinvent the jazz-vibes tradition

Stefon Harris performing at 2009 JEN Conference. (photo: Chuck Gee)
Stefon Harris performing at 2009 JEN Conference. (photo: Chuck Gee)
Chris Dingman
Warren Wolf

Since its initial marketing in 1921, the vibraphone-essentially a percussion instrument with piano-like melodic possibilities-has been reinvented from generation to generation. Lionel Hampton popularized the vibraphone as a jazz instrument during the mid-1930s with the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet, then taught it how to rock on proto-R&B hits like 1942’s “Flying Home” and 1946’s “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.” A plethora of innovative vibraphonists have come along over the decades: Red Norvo and Milt Jackson in the late ’40s and early ’50s; Gary Burton with his revolutionary four-mallet technique in the ’60s; Mike Mainieri and Jay Hoggard during the ’70s; Joe Locke, Steve Nelson and Bryan Carrott during the ’80s and ’90s.

Since his emergence in the mid-’90s, classically trained Stefon Harris has brought to the instrument striking ambition as a composer and arranger, and his stylistic versatility knows few bounds: On albums like 2009’s Urbanus (Concord Jazz), Harris and his Blackout group connect postbop to funk-, hip-hop- and even go-go-based rhythms. At age 38, he’s emerged as the elder statesman of a new breed of jazz vibraphonist. And while Harris’ undeniable virtuosity has established him as the preeminent vibes player of his generation, several other remarkably diverse players are following in his wake.

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