The list of jazz vibraphonists that are household names (in jazz households, that is) is not very long. Not as long as, say, that same list made up of tenor saxophonists. Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Roy Ayers - probably a few others. The fact that you're likely to hear less of this particular instrument in a jazz context than a piano or a drum set is one of its charms. Since its use is comparatively rare, in the hands of a great player its sound is like a breath of fresh air.
Tom Collier's latest release is titled Mallet Jazz and was made with his longtime musical partner bassist/engineer Dan Dean. They're also joined by a few other west coast session luminaries: Emil Richards on marimba, William O. 'Bill' Smith on clarinet, Don Grusin on piano, and Joe Porcaro on drums. Much of what these guys do for a living is sidework for projects and artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Peggy Lee, and the Seattle Symphony. However, this recording has the feel of a 'shits 'n giggles' session with the results being a fun experience for the band and the listener.
All the music here is written by Collier. The melodies, harmonies, and forms are, for the most part, straight ahead and sound as though they could've been written a few decades back. The small group here possibly belies a 70s Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band compositional sensibility; replete with 'hip' funk/jazz grooves. Actually, less than half of the record is straight-up swing. The tune 'Eddie's Pad' sounds like an unrecorded Steely Dan piece, sans Fagen's vocals. It hovers in a neverland between pop and jazz, with excellent solos all around. Cool tune. Most of the heads of these songs have a somewhat 'pop-ish' feel to them, but the blowing is all Jazz.
Collier in particular has total mastery of his instrument. While not always inspired, most players of the instrument would wish his worst day were their best. The best piece on the record is 'Pink Skies Over Carnaby' which features Collier unaccompanied on both vibes and marimba. The piece is written in a repetitive and meditative 5/4 feel. There is almost an African kalimba-like quality to his instrument on this track. It's the most sensitive and personal sounding music on the record and left me wanting more of Collier in this style. A good listen.