Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jon McCaslin Vibraphonist ?

Much to my surprise I discovered how much I enjoy playing the vibraphone about 3 years ago.

I had two experiences in 2006 that convinced me to take up this metal beast. First, while teaching at the Sasktel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival I had the opportunity to hear the great Bobby Hutcherson and his quartet (with Canadian ex-pat Renee Rosnes on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass and the under-rated Eddie Marshall on drums). Hutcherson is a contemporary of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and that whole 60's crew. That concert, held in the old Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan will forever be one of the most memorable musical experiences I've ever witnessed.

Fast forward to the fall of 2006 and I found myself in Havana, Cuba participating in Aldo Mazza's KoSa Cuba Percussion Workshop. A bunch of us wandered down to some basement jazz club one night and heard an amazing young vipraphonista by the name of Tamara Castaneda. WOW !!! The best description I can use is to imagine a cross between Gary Burton and Chucho Valdez. I think she's done some work with the Afro-Cuban All-Stars but other than that I don't think she has done anything outside of Cuba. I bought her CD (which was obiviously homemade) but unfortunately it didn't work once I brought it back to Canada. She was amazing and I hope to hear more of her in the future.

So once I returned to Calgary I rented a vibraphone for several months and decided I wanted to take a serious look at this amazing instrument. Vibraphonist Arnold Faber was nice enough to give me a few lessons to get me started and my fellow percussionists Bob Fenske and Malcolm Lim gave me some suggestions to deal with the technical side of things.

Since moving to Toronto in the fall of '07, I've since acquired my own beautiful vintage M-55 set of vibes and have studied with percussionist John Brownell and improvisation with jazz pianist Gary Williamson.

I've even put together a fun band that gets together on a weekly basis, comprised of jazz musicians playing their "second" instruments. The "Goat" band, as our drummer puts it, is made up of myself on vibraphone, Tom Van Seters on drums, Rob Fekete on bass, Ben Dietschi on piano and Patrick Boyle on guitar (in theory!) and sub-bass. Things are going very well and we'll be playing a week at the Village Vanguard next month (haha...no not really!)

So far my process has been to learn all my favorite tunes, get my scales together and generally improve my proficiency at getting around the instrument. Somebody gave me a copy of all the Aebersold volumes so I've shedding along to those quite a bit. It's very refreshing to be thinking about playing music but from a different perspective after all these years of being strictly a drum set player dealing mostly with rhythm. Actually, I've been playing as much vibes as drum set these days and it's something that I hope to improve upon and continue for the rest of my life. 

My current focus on melody and harmony has really enhanced and expanded my approach to being a drummer. I would highly recommend any jazz drummer to check out the vibes in order to expand their understand of total music. I've always tooled around on the piano and I do all my composing/arranging at the piano, but in terms of performance practice - I'm a real hack (!) I know a lot of drummers who are very proficient piano players, but there is really something to be said about being a drummer and being able to express melody and harmony with TWO sticks/mallets on a percussion instrument ! 

Although in the case of the vibes, four mallets would be appropriate. But I've resigned to sticking with two. The four mallet approach, while definately the way to go to fully exploit the possibilities of the instrument (check out Gary Burton, Stefon Harris and Joe Locke!!!), this is going to require way too much time for me to fully master. So I'll be happy to stick with an old school two mallet approach. That's more than enough for me to handle these days. Besides, I have a DMA dissertation to write !

But, two mallets worked for Milt Jackson and Lionel Hampton (not to mention Toronto vibraphonists Don Thompson and saxphonist-turned-vibesman Del Dako) so there is hope for me !

My only regret about all of this is that I didn't start all of this earlier !
For the most part, I kind of brushed off any attempts to learn mallet instruments when I was in the Regina Lions Band or in high school. At the time, I just wanted to be a hot-shot rudimental snare drummer and drum set player. 

So my message to all you young drummers out there: 


Oh well, I guess it's never too late is it ? : )

Here's a clip of my hero Milt Jackson playing Billy Strayhorn's "Take The A Train" at a master class somewhere in Europe.


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