Wizard of the Vibes – Milt Jackson

Artist: Milt Jackson

Year: 1952

Genre: Bebop

Put-it-on-a-Playlist: “Lillie,” “Criss Cross,” “Bags’ Groove”

Grade: A

The vibes are such a cool instrument. The sound, very unique — not the childish click-clacking of a xylophone (or the inescapable one-note accent of the marimba) but rather a warm and embracing tone that remains mysterious and just out-of-reach.

Milt Jackson, born 1923, may have been the greatest vibraphonist of them all. He wielded a rare mastery over an instrument typically thought of as a background luxury, transforming the vibes into a wholly expressive and unique display of emotion. Just like the pedal steel guitar, the vibraphone is as dangerous a musical weapon as anything. When used in the right context, of course.

The trick for Jackson — why they call him a wizard, nay, the wizard — is that the context doesn’t matter. He is always able to command a tune, no matter the genre.

“Lillie” and “What’s New” find Jackson in his cool-jazz comfort zone. The serene ballads are beautiful but somewhat ominous — the low and slow oscillation between the notes lends an eerie quality. On the other hand, uptempo bops like “Criss Cross” and the standard “Bags’ Groove” share the spotlight with Thelonious Monk and saxophonist Lou Donaldson, but the songs always come back to Jackson. Whether foreground or background, his playing is captivating.

This album is an essential recording for both bebop and vibraphone enthusiasts. And because it is such a narrow niche, Wizard of the Vibes is no doubt the best of its kind.

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