Last month, in a fit of resignation after hearing the news of 93 year-old Lionel Hampton's death, I dejectedly reached for my old vinyl box set of his Bluebird recordings from the late 1930's. Aside from being lightened and cheered by the consistently brilliant results therein, upon reaching the justly famous "Hot Mallets" from 1939 (with a young Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Chu Berry taking the tenor solo, and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster sitting idly by in the horn section) I was reminded of the imperiousness of Hampton's attack on the vibes. It is all there for the hearing, over 60 years later: the lightning quick, swaggering phrases, each of whose increasingly complex beginnings peels like a shell off the preceding one; the suppleness of the rhythmic accents, highlighted by Hampton's ability to breath with the vibraphone; the unfolding logic that surprises and excites like the best mystery novels, yet with only one culprit - surreptitious swing.
All of which is to say that it is something of a mystery why Phillip Records would want to add this perfunctory two-disc set onto the already-high pile of later Hampton releases, most of which do little to bolster the heights of his earlier achievements. Take, for instance, the last half of the medium swinger "Frankies Flat", in which Hampton apparently seems to be soloing over four-bar riff patterns by the horn section. I say "apparently" because his approach is so languid, so undernuanced, and so unincorporated to its surroundings, that it is unclear if he is accompanying the horns or they him. Instead of his majestic flood of rhythmic division that boils over on "Hot Mallets," one is presented with a trickling stream of quarter-note phrases, which trace the roots of the harmony without much exploration. Most depressingly, however, it seems as if Hampton is simply not listening to his surroundings, and vice versa, leaving the old master to pick an attack that appears to bear very little on the context it's couched in.
To return to logistics, the first disc of the set does not actually contain any tunes by Hampton's band; that's relegated to the second half of the box. Rather, it is comprised of two unaccompanied tunes by the Gerald Wiggins Trio, who display fantastic finesse on an uptempo "Loverman". Then, joined by a similarly diminished Harry "Sweets" Edison, they struggle to shield the aging trumpeter from the high notes he can no longer reach with ease. After a few disappointing numbers joined by singer Ernie Andrews and saxman Teddy Edwards (concerning which I'll follow that old mothers' dictum about not having anything nice to say), the Wiggins trio takes a bow to welcome Hampton and his band on stage. A joke by emcee Steve Allen (yes, that Steve Allen) regarding the 20 minutes it may take them to get Hampton to the mike pretty much sets the stage for the remaining proceedings.
That is not to say that this concert, recorded in honor of the vibraphonist, pianist and vocalist's 90th birthday is not without any moments. When the band slows down enough and backs off enough for Hampton's more laid-back delivery on "When I Fall in Love" (three relatively straight choruses of the melody, spelled out mostly in quarter and half notes), the results - if not magical - are certainly moving. Also, the band's dropout to allow a Hampton trio with bass and drums at the end of "Soul Serenade" provides the listener to hear what interesting, if subdued, things he has to say at this late stage in life. Indeed, one cannot say that this set - taken in whole - does not convey some of the fun and outright swinging joy the extroverted vibist expressed up until his very last years.
Overall, however, this set does a less than perfect job of serving the reputation of the recently passed jazz great. One wonders perhaps if the listener's time might not better be spent in writing a letter to RCA/Bluebird urging them to reissue their criminally out of print box set, with new liner notes and remastered sound. Testaments are tricky things, and one hopes that the full-throated originals will always be more highly prized than the half-hearted remakes.