Saturday, May 18, 2019

Cal Tjader - An Understated Vibraphonist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The vibraphone invites overplaying almost by its very nature. … Unlike a horn player, the vibraphonist is unable to sustain notes for very long, even with the help of vibrato and pedal. The vibes invite overplaying to compensate for such limitations. Added to these difficulties is the fact that … [they are played with] a hitting motion powered by the wrists. With the mastery of a steady drum roll, the aspiring vibraphonist is already capable of flinging out a flurry of notes and, given the repetitive motions used to build up drum technique, the vibes player is tempted to lock into a ‘steady stream’… [of notes].

Tjader’s playing, however, was nothing like this. Although he was a drummer and percussionist by background, he seemed to draw on the instincts of a horn player in shaping his improvised lines. They did breathe.” [Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, p.103].

Cal always maintained that his two main influences on vibes were Lionel Hampton and Milt [“Bags’] Jackson. “Hamp” was a banger and “Bags” was a bopper and a blues player without equal. How in the world did Cal fuse such dissimilar styles?

Ted Gioia also notes this divergence and takes this point a step further:

“These disparate strains in his playing came out most clearly in his Jazz work. Where Tjader melded them into a melodic, often introspective style that was very much his own. Even when playing more high-energy Latin numbers Tjader kept a low-key demeanor, building off the intensity of the rhythm section rather than trying to supplant it. For the most part, he came across as an introvert on an instrument meant for extroverts.” [Ibid, pp.103-104].

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