NICK DERISO: Finding an impressive record by Lionel Hampton, known for both his harmonic and rhythmic sophistication, is easy.
Finding one that delights as much as its intrigues anymore, however, is rare.
His legacy, now more than ever, is secure: Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1908, Hamp would record hundreds of albums over six decades before his death at 94 in 2002. It’s said he first played the vibes, an amplified xylophone, with Louis Armstrong as early as 1930’s “Memories of You.” Now, Hampton wasn’t the first widely heard musician to take up the vibraphone — Red Norvo was doing that in the late 1920s — but the former drummer made it his own, using a varied, flamboyant range of attacks that produced this swinging groove never before heard on the instrument.
On stage, Hampton took it up a notch, switching from vibes to drums to two-fingered piano, delighting all. He was one of popular music’s first legitimate artists with superstar stage presence.
Later, after a move to California, Hamp’s hits included “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” “Flying Home” (most associated with his tenure in the Benny Goodman band, from 1936-40) and “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.”
All, well documented. Even still, we find in these middle-period Swiss radio recordings, moments of pure transcendence.
Sure, by the 1950s, Hampton was nothing short of an ambassador for jazz, undertaking numerous “goodwill” tours to Europe, Japan, Australia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. He was on TV as much as Carson. But he kept a Southern-influenced blues ear: Hampton had lived for a time in Alabama as a youngster with his grandmother, so he mixed in familiar reinterpretations of standards like “Moonglow’ and “Dinah” from the Goodman era with more soulful sides.
That shines through on “Kingfish/Drinking Wine,” a seven-minute groove.
You could also credit his eye for young talent. Hampton’s bands, over the years, featured Betty Carter, Arnett Cobb, Johnny Griffin, Charles Mingus, Milt Buckner, Wes Montgomery and Terence Blanchard, among others. He developed a lasting relationship with the University of Idaho, which even now trains aspiring young musicians at the Lionel Hampton School of Music.
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that “Basel 1953” captured trumpeter Clifford Brown in the months just before he emerged as a first-rate soloist with Max Roach. Also included on this Montreux Jazz Label release from last March are trombone great Jimmy Cleveland, saxist GiGi Grice, bass player Monk Montgomery (guitarist Wes’ brother) and Quincy Jones on both trump and piano, among others.
Grice’s “Brown Skin,” referred to a “Guice Suite” here, is a fast-forward composition of depth and maturity, with Brown as its signature orator. The tune, and this says as much about Hampton as it does Grice, could have fit into any modern jazz recording of the ensuring decades.
Throughout, Hamp is a hoot. You hear parts of Dexter Gordon’s “Setting the Pace,” for instance, during a run up to the by-then familiar turn on “Flying Home.” (I’d argue that this tune — embedded below — set an emotional tone that led to rock music, with its randy solo shouting by tenor man Illinois Jacquet.)
As always, you can almost see Hampton’s face, mouth agape, running through the changes.
That might get you to thinking he was simply an old-fashioned showman. Instead, Lionel Hampton’s willingness toward experimentation continued far past his hey day, and connected his music to the music’s next iterations — including later greats like Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Terry Gibbs.
You hear that on “Swiss Radio Days: Basel 1953, Part 2,” all over again. A terrific find.
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