“The emotion, the gut wrenching pain, the cry from within.” Words that have been used to describe what audiences witness when they see the playing style of the Australian vibraphone player Alan Lee in full flow.
The Vibraphone is an instrument at the forefront of the percussion instrument family in the jazz idiom. The “Vibes” to give it its shortened and more familiar name, was first heard being skilfully played by Lionel Hampton in the heady world of the Big Band and then again within the smaller ensembles of the clarinetist Benny Goodman, where Hampton’s forceful melodic dexterity brought new exciting sounds to the world and showed how it could be a frontline instrument of note.
Alan Lee’s playing has been influenced to some extent by other iconic players of the instrument, Gary Burton, Red Norvo, Terry Gibbs and Mil: Jackson, being some of the most prominent exponents of the instrument and whose influences of extended techniques, four mallet playing and long loping but always swinging bebop lines.
What the listener is hearing on this album is the story of Lee’s travels into the soul of those players music – especially those he has managed to maybe meet in person and document through his albums over the years. However, because we can clearly hear who his influences are that doesn’t automatically mean that Lee is just a copyist. Lee really does have his own voice and uses it to full effect across standards and originals.
The 11 songs on this compilation range from Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” through to numbers like “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” and “Bailero” where Lee is not playing vibes but conducting. The whole output is based around Lee’s 1960s/1970s albums.
This compilation will certainly introduce audiences to a good cross-section of Lee’s work with some veering towards the kind of Sunday lunchtime jazz bop crowd which had the Jazz dancers in the UK seeking out David Pike’s albums in the 1980s from the influential pioneering Jazz DJ Paul Murphy.
Australian jazz is seldom mentioned in the bigger picture of global music, but vibist Alan Lee has made a useful contribution to the development of modern jazz down under, being influenced by the work of Lionel Hampton early on, and then both Milt Jackson and Gary Burton, and as such this is an enterprising move from Jazzman to cover his portfolio. What is a pity, however, is that this anthology covers such a short period in Lee’s career from 1973 and 1974 and this means we have a necessarily narrow perspective on how he developed as a musician, though the inner sleeve notes by fellow Australian jazz lover James Pianta are as informative as ever and shed light on the trials and tribulations of Lee’s troublesome personal life. The music itself works best when it is long and expansive and this is wonderfully illustrated in the nine and a half minute ‘Sunflower’, which is a truly fiery take on the Freddie Hubbard original, or on the experimental interpretation of classical composer Stravinsky’s ‘Dance of the adolescents’. This is more akin to the style of Sun Ra and features electric piano and heavy percussion. Not everything is essential and Hector Villa-Lobos’ ‘Bachanas Brasileras’ does sound somewhat out-of-place with the rest of the music, although interesting in tis own right. A haunting groove is conjured up on a John Lewis composition, ‘Sketch’, and this may be where the interest in third stream music for Alan Lee emerged. In a more contemporary vein, the lovely bass line is a feature of a lovely take in ‘Comin’ home baby’ that Mel Tormé immortalised. The CD contains a worthy bonus in an epic eleven and a half minute take on War’s early 1970s opus, ‘The world is a ghetto’. Indeed the title may well be a résumé of some of the demons that Alan Lee had to fight.