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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tom Beckham: Center Songs


I find myself fascinated with vibraphonists' compositions, which often exercise the instrument's tonal possibilities, negotiating between melody, harmony and color. The pieces on Tom Beckham's recent album Center Songs are no exception. He's as much a tunesmith as a performer.

A Washington, D.C. native, Beckham first studied classical music, playing marimba, drums and orchestral percussion before discovering the vibes. While the earliest jazz sounds in his ear included Milt Jackson, Wes Montgomery and Count Basie, he also tells me his interest in jazz was ignited by Miles in the Sky -- quite a hip, funky entree into this world, if you ask me. He started attending Berklee in '86, studied with Gary Burton, graduated in '90 and moved to New York four years later. Nowadays, you can catch him with his own group as well as with Joe Phillips's Numinous orchestra (see also the Pulse composers' collective, which employs Beckham as a performer). Now, years after his 1999 debut, Suspicions, the vibist's sophomore effort features a second good look at an evolving player.

The leader proudly admits to being influenced by the presence of saxophonist Chris Cheek, a bandmate from his first album and a classmate back at Berklee. Cheek's pure, assertive tone and controlled vibrato really warm things up -- sonic syrup, in a good way. He seems to be as much a tone colorist as Beckham is. "Two Part Convention" is a case in point, a ballad with a gorgeous swelling and subsiding vibe/sax melody, furry around the edges. Cheek's solo is tender and personal, and he has a way of stretching the time with his phrasing. Beckham is equally clever and lyrical with his lines here. His gentle rubato intro on "Visitation" is incredibly mature. He uses a slightly harder attack on "Zero Gravity Situation," a brilliant melody with some bright harmony to match, and Henry Hey's piano work is luminescent.

The rhythm section clearly both respects and affects Beckham's compositional world. Voglino is deft and springy on the waltz, "The Mansion," and his presence seems to inspire a more percussive solo from Beckham. He and bassist John Hebert lay it down on "Roll 'Em," which might be heard as Monk and Mingus channelled through Beckham's own pen. Hebert gets some space to voice some dexterous ideas without losing any groove. Similarly, they drive everyone hard on the post-boppish "Sleuth," where Hey's shape-shifting ideas flow continuously.

The tune "Center Song" might be a good metaphor for the album as a whole: modern groove, artful harmony and melody, and a coherent presentation of how previous inspirations can bring about new voices. Albums like Bobby Hutcherson’s Total Eclipse, Stick Up! or Patterns might be "traditional" predecessors that use the vibe/sax quintet instrumentation, but while Beckham might come from a tradition, Center Songs seeks to carve out a space for his own strong voice -- influence meets invention. This album is rife with hooks that won't lose their wonder.

Center Songs (Apria/Sunnyside)
Tom Beckham (vb)
Chris Cheek (ts)
Henry Hey (p)
John Hebert (b)
Diego Voglino (d)

See his website for a few full-length mp3s.

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