The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
When Bobby Hutcherson joined with Eric Dolphy for the seminal Out To Lunch sessions for Blue Note in 1964, he was heralded as jazz's prime avant-garde vibraphonist. Born in Los Angeles in 1941, he trained as a pianist, but his musical life changed when he heard records by the great vibesman Milt Jackson.
A tenure with Basie-ites Al Grey and Billy Mitchell brought him to New York in 1961, where he began to play with cutting-edge contenders like Jackie McLean, Dolphy, Andrew Hill and Grachan Moncur, all of whom were to become Blue Note masters.
In March 1965 Hutcherson played alongside the proclaimed prophets of jazz's new age like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Moncur and Sonny Murray at a recorded benefit concert for Harlem's Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School at the Village Gate.
The session was released as an epochal album The New Wave In Jazz. In his sleeve notes the campaigner and writer Le Roi Jones signalled the sounds of the record as "this new black music … you hear on this record poets of The Black Nation," acknowledging Hutcherson as a thoughtful and challenging musician of "the post-Milesian cool," while Steve Young, the music arts co-ordinator of the theatre, warned the listeners that "these men are dangerous" and their notes spread narratives of "south Philly and dark Georgian nights after sundown, night-time Mau Mau attacks." Here was jazz with a new political message.
Hutcherson followed this concert a month later with his Blue Note debut Dialogue and continued with other powerful albums through the '60s like Components (1965), Stick-Up (1966) and Spiral (1968).
During the '70s his music shifted away from free and avant-garde expression back towards the post-bop mainstream, but always manifesting his serene melodism and complex rhythmic foundation.
Now beyond his 70th year, his new album Wise One has a strong retrospective gaze and includes five tunes from Coltrane, taking him back almost five decades. With him are guitarist Anthony Wilson and pianist Joe Gilman, with Eddie Marshall on drums and bassist Glenn Richman.
The title tune comes from Coltrane's June 1964 album Crescent. Hutcherson has a beautiful way of sprinkling his notes, which splash alongside Marshall's drums.
Wilson continues the theme with lucid, echoing phrases before Hutcherson returns, his sounds falling on the ears like tropical showers.
Coltrane's Like Sonny had several incarnations, growing from a phrase his saxophonist comrade Sonny Rollins used.
Hutcherson's version is full of vibrant life, with a Latin rimshot rhythm from Marshall and Richman's bass heartbeat throbbing.
Gilman's solo choruses saunter optimistically and Wilson's buoyant notes prepare the road for Hutcherson's levitating sound.
Aisha is a tune written by the pianist of the most potent Coltrane quartet McCoy Tyner, which they recorded on the 1961 Atlantic album Olé Coltrane.
Hutcherson's deft mallets strike out the melody with a simple, uncluttered lyricism. The dramatic blues theme Equinox follows, and Hutcherson shows, like his mentor Jackson, how much his complex instrument can really fire the blues, inspired by Coltrane's 1960 recording on his Coltrane's Sound album.
Like Coltrane, Hutcherson is one of the supreme balladeers of jazz.
Nancy and All Or Nothing At All are both to be found on Coltrane's 1961 Ballads album.
The latter leaps with Wilson's chords and Hutcherson's springing patterns while the ghost of Sinatra seeps eerily from the former.
Spiritual tells of a defiant black culture ever alive in the cruellest of times, turning faith into resistance and beauty.
Coltrane's 1961 recording from the Live At The Village Vanguard album, in the midst of his people in the US south demanding civil rights and an end to Jim Crow and singing spirituals as they marched and protested, is emulated by Hutcherson's proud melodic lines.
As is the current of jazz, different listeners will of course draw different narratives from this album.
For me, its tunes strike hard like Hutcherson's mallets at the rebellious notes of the '60s - of black pride, Panthers, anti-racist struggle and No to the war in Vietnam - for these are the stories lived out in Coltrane's great themes and played by this singular and superb musician.
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