The pioneer vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who grew up and learned music in Chicago, died last Labor Day weekend; the first of undoubtedly many tributes to him comes this weekend, when the Chicago Jazz Orchestra opens its four-concert season. The program will offer a retrospective of Hamp’s career, from the time he joined Benny Goodman’s mid-30s trio–the band that broke the color barrier in publicly performed jazz–through his leadership of a big band that in its prime ranked among the most explosive in jazz history; and CJO director Jeff Lindberg has invited the right guest artists for the job. The Chuck Hedges Swingtet–a Chicago group patterned after the Goodman quartet, with the leader’s clarinet arabesques dueling Duane Thamm’s vibes–will play several of the Goodman quartet’s classic tunes, and more important, acclaimed mallet whiz Stefon Harris will join the orchestra to re-create the big band charts Hampton presided over from the 1950s until his death. Still under 30, Harris has released three albums under his own name and appeared on a slew of others, all of which have marked him as the successor to Gary Burton and Bobby Hutcherson as the finest vibraphonist in jazz. At times, he sounds like a supercharged Milt Jackson, and he has clearly absorbed the specific harmonic language that made Hutcherson a valued participant in the progressive scene of the 1960s. But Harris has created a fresh sound of his own, thanks to his extensive simultaneous use of vibes and marimba, and also his empathic grasp of the instrument’s dual nature: he makes dramatic use of its percussive quality, yet feels free to ignore it entirely when the music demands legato lyricism. And his work as a composer has grown in huge leaps: his next album, The Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note, due in February), is an album-length suite for 12 instruments that will almost certainly make it onto next year’s Top Ten lists. Sunday, November 24, 3 PM, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State; 312-409-3947.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.