Good Vibes: The Trio! brings back the vibraphone

If you go

The Trio!

When: Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m.

Where: Aldo’s Restaurant, 4820 Davis Blvd., Naples, 775-2200

You don’t hear much about the vibraphone anymore, even though two of the most famous musicians in jazz — Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo — played the vibes.

That might be changing, in Naples, anyway, as area guitarist/vocalist Rick Howard has put together a jazz group that recalls the classic combinations led by Hampton and Norvo in the 1940s and 1950s. Howard’s group, simply called the Trio!, is one of the most impressive, inventive and refreshing groups, jazz or otherwise, I’ve heard in some time.

The instrumentation is singular, comprised of Howard on electric guitar, Dan Heck on acoustic bass and “Sir” John Jeffrey on vibes.

For those who have never seen or heard the vibraphone, also known as the vibraharp, it looks like a xylophone, but has aluminum bars instead of wooden one, and with a sustain pedal similar to that on a piano. Motor-controlled, rotating fans under the bars, placed atop long resonator tubes, are responsible for the “vibrating” sound of the vibes. The rate of the vibrato can be controlled by the player. Norvo, however, never used the vibrato function, nor does contemporary mallet giant Gary Burton.

Of the concept behind the group, Howard explains, “I wanted to put together a trio with no drums in the tradition of the groups of Nat ‘King’ Cole, Oscar Peterson and vibist Red Norvo. This would be a trio that could swing hard, yet be quiet and elegant enough to play venues of any size. And the sound of the vibes, bass and guitar is classic. The instruments compliment each other perfectly.”

The Trio! specifically recalls the sound of the famed Norvo trio, if only because it has the same instrumentation.

Norvo started out in the 1920s as a xylophone player in vaudeville. He not only helped introduce mallet instruments to jazz — he switched from xylophone to vibes in about 1944 — but he continued to evolve stylistically through the years.

In 1945, he recorded with revolutionary bop musicians Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Six years later, he formed his famous trio with ground-breaking bassist Charles Mingus and guitarist Tal Farlow. All three were formidable technicians and improvisers, and their arrangements were marvels of invention.

Similar things can be said of the Trio! At the center of this group is, of course, the vibes, and vibist “Sir” John Jeffrey is the focal point. Jeffrey has achieved something of “jazz star” status in the Naples-Marco area, having played here for years. Originally from Chicago’s south side, he played with stars like Vic Damone and Bobby Darin.

He got his nickname from older players in Chicago who called him “sir” out of respect for his vibraphone talents. He has a lot to do in this group. Certainly, he takes great jazz solos, often bringing to mind one of his main influences, the still-active vibist Terry Gibbs, but he has to play chords a la the piano when Howard and Heck solo. It’s a difficult task even for the best player, but he does it effortlessly.

Heck, the bassist who is also a wonderful guitarist, is the group’s anchor. He’s a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and his Seattle-based ensemble, “Bebop and Destruction,” recorded three, nationally recognized CDs. He spent five years in New York City before moving to Southwest Florida with his wife, singer Rebecca Richardson.

The bassist in a drumless group has a pivotal job. Time, tempo and rhythm are what makes jazz work, and that job is usually the drummer’s. In this band, it’s up to Heck to keep time, help swing the band and play all the “right notes.” He does. The tempo never varies and a drummer is never missed.

Rick Howard is a versatile artist who is equally at home with jazz, Motown and doo-wop.

And he’s an accomplished steel pan drum player as well.

“I play every style of music and I love it all, but jazz is my sweetheart,” he says. He’s been playing and singing for 45 years, and his jazz guitar influences were and are Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Wes Montgomery and Norvo’s star guitarist, the late Tal Farlow.

When hearing Howard play first-rate and tasteful jazz, it’s hard to imagine that, through the years, he’s backed everyone from The Drifters to Chuck Berry.

He is, in fact, just as busy in Southwest Florida with his classic/contemporary pop group, “Made in Brooklyn” (featuring Howard and his wife, Lisa) as he is with the Trio!

He doesn’t believe in musical labels or categories, rather, in the old Duke Ellington adage that there are only two types of music: “good and bad.”

While the Trio! doesn’t set out to re-create or recapture anything, the band does fondly recall the efforts of the drumless small groups of the 1940s and the 1950s, some with vibes and some without.

The group’s songbook includes a lot of standards, as well as noted vibes features like the Lionel Hampton’s “Wholly Cats” and the Norvo trio’s “I Remember April.”

Howard, Jeffrey and Heck may do some musical recalling, but the music of the Trio! is timelessly refreshing and always swinging.

© 2009 gonaples.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.

Sessions