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Hamp's big-band combo
March 5th, 1995 04:00
Published 4:00 am, Thursday, March 9, 1995

VENERABLE VIBIST Lionel Hampton may call his cookin' band at Kimball's East the "Jazz Inner Circle," suggesting a bigger group's small combo, but the hard swinging, jumping boogie-beat sounds I heard roaring out over the noisily appreciative Tuesday night audience were big-band all the way.

The Inner Circle ensemble, with Hamp's vibes and drums front-and-center, numbers 12 in all - four saxes, three trumpets; a trombone, piano, bass and drums. Add another trombone or two (now there's only one, Mike Grey) and a guitar and you'd have a "big band," in swing-era terminology.

No musician has done more to keep alive the upbeat boogie-blues rhythms than Hampton, nor has any other living musician done more - over a longer time - to introduce the African American "blues" forms to white popular music fans. Hamp's vocal on "Vibraphone Blues," recorded in the summer of 1936 on the Benny Goodman Quartet's first sessions - "If the blues was whisky, babe, I would be drunk all the time . . . " - was the first time thousands of white "swing" fans had ever heard an African American blues singer.

Hampton still sings blues lines, occasionally inserting them, Louis Jordan-style, into "Hamp's Boogie," "Hey Ba Ba Re Bop" and "Beulah's Boogie." And, at nearly 86 years of age, he's still got more than a little of the Cab Calloway "Hi-De-Ho" spirit left, too. Trombonist Grey is only one of the Inner Circle's outstanding soloists. Like his famous father, Al Grey (who starred for years with Hampton around 1950), Mike blows clean and hard, maintaining both pitch and tone - a difficult trombone task when soloing over a wild boogie-beat band.

The Inner Circle not only swings and jumps, it also features some elegant, distinctively scored ballad material. Tenor sax Lance Bryant, an impressive all-around performer, soloed often and always brilliantly. On Richard Rodgers' "Where or When," he was as beautifully emotional as old-timers Chu Berry or Hershal Evans; on the up-tempo Hampton stuff, Bryant takes off like Charlie Parker playing tenor.

Also included in the opening-night set was a fascinating ensemble arrangement of "When I Fall in Love" that included a segment scored for three flutes and clarinet. On a couple of other selections, clarinetist Cleve Guyton (who is officially an alto saxist) plays solo piccolo, and on "Over the Rainbow," another of the ballads in the neatly structured set, pianist Kuni Mikami laid down gorgeous chords behind the especially mellow trumpet solo of Patrick Rickman, a tall, remarkably inventive soloist with an informal, winning manner. High-note specialist Patrick Hession and James Rotondi, a solid bebopper, complete the trumpet section.

Hampton, shifting from the vibes and playing his own kit, joined the band's superb veteran drummer, Brian Grice, on a flag-waving "Sing, Sing, Sing" that featured everyone on the bandstand, and as a closer, he sang Louis Armstrong's "It's a Wonderful World," reminding us all that Satchmo's "Memories of You" recording in 1930 was the first on which he played vibes - 65 years ago. The Kimball's gig runs through Sunday.

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