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Vibraphone player Bobby Hutcherson has died

Former Blue Note regular dies in San Francisco at 75

Vibraphone pioneer Bobby Hutcherson has died, reported the SFJazz website. He was 75. Hutcherson was one of the longest serving musicians on Blue Note records. He appeared as sideman or leader on scores of releases between 1963–77, which ranged from straightahead bop with Dexter Gordon and soul jazz with Big John Patten, to sessions with Blue Note’s most adventurous musicians including Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Sam Rivers and Andrew Hill.

Hutcherson began his long association with Blue Note after making two decisive life-changes. He grew up in Los Angeles and originally studied piano. Then came a switch of instruments to vibraphone and a move to the East Coast after a 1961 date with his ensemble at Birdland. His first recording was as part of a pianoless quintet on Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond, which revealed him to be such a skilful musician that he effectively replaced the keyboard player. He fulfilled a similar role on McLean’s Destination… Out!, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch and Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution. Hutcherson’s playing – alongside his lesser known contemporary, Walt Dickerson – redefined the vibraphone from a supporting instrument to a vehicle for the musician’s freedom of expression. On sessions such as Out To Lunch, he had few rhythmic responsibilities, leaving him free to explore the full sonic range of his unwieldy instrument, experimenting with sharply percussive playing, extended use of sustain and sudden drops into silence.

His first release as leader was 1965’s Dialogue, which boasted an all-star line-up featuring Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Andrew Hill, Richard Davis and Joe Chambers. The compositions for the album were mostly written by Hill and Chambers, but Dialogue was one of the most innovative Blue Note albums of the era, described by AB Spellman an “essay in free group improvisation in which no one lays an apparently set role, in which there are no extended solos, but in which there is a mass evolution around some felt key”. Hutcherson went on to record prolifically in the middle part of the decade, but like Hill, many of his significant Blue Note albums only emerged years after they were recorded, among them 1963’s The Kicker, 1967’s Oblique and 1968’s Patterns.

In 1967, Hutcherson returned to Los Angeles and started a new quintet with Harold Land, beginning a lengthy association with the saxophonist. By 1970 he had moved to San Francisco, and the album named after the city saw him delving into fusion territory. By 1977 he signed to Columbia Records and later ended up on Verve, but he would sporadically reappear on Blue Note alongside former associates such as McCoy Tyner; in 2014 he recorded Enjoy The View, his final album as leader for the label. Hutcherson also had a brief career as an actor, appearing alongside Jane Fonda in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) and saxophonist Dexter Gordon in Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight (1986).

Derek Walmsley wrote about the music of Bobby Hutcherson, Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean and other adventurous musicians on Blue Note in The Wire’s Freedom Principles issue in December 2014.