Bobby Hutcherson was born in Los Angeles, California on 27 January 1941. He grew up in Pasdena. Hutcherson was exposed to jazz from an early age, and his family had some connections to the local jazz scene. (His brother was a high-school friend of Dexter Gordon and his sister would later date Eric Dolphy.) He started studying piano as at age nine, but he found the formality of the training stifling. In his teens, Hutcherson decided to take up the vibraphone after hearing a Milt Jackson record. He studied informally with vibist Dave Pike, but, for the most part, he is self-taught on the instrument. Hutcherson's own musical career began when started playing local dances with his friend, bassist Herbie Lewis.
After high school, Hutcherson played with local jazz musicians Les McCann, Charles Lloyd, Paul Bley, Scott LaFaro, and Curtis Amy. (Hutcherson's first full-length album as a sideman was with Amy and Frank Butler, titled Groovin' Blue.) Later, after moving to San Francisco, Hutcherson joined an ensemble co-led by Al Grey and Billy Mitchell, and the band went on to record several albums in both of the leaders' names. During this time, Hutcherson frequently played chords using a four-mallet technique (now more commonly associated with vibist Gary Burton) because there was no pianist in the group. However, since the end of the 1960's, Hutcherson has only occasionally used this technique and has focused instead on more horn-like, linear playing. Around 1960 Hutcherson began working on an album as a leader for Dick Bock's Pacific Jazz label, but he abandoned the effort after recording only four songs. (These recordings have never been released.)
In 1961, Hutcherson traveled east with the Grey-Mitchell sextet for a run at Birdland in New York. He decided to stay. Hutcherson was acclaimed for his work with Grey, and he continued to record with him through 1963. More significantly, Hutcherson also began working and recording with two important "New Thing" artists, Eric Dolphy and Jackie McLean. Hutcherson's work with McLean yielded the first album that made many jazz fans and critics sit up and take notice of the new vibist on the scene. The 1963 album One Step Beyond featured an amazing quintet of McLean on alto sax, Grachan Moncur III on trombone, Tony Williams on drums, Eddie Khan on bass, and Hutch on vibes. Hutcherson was also featured on important sessions by Eric Dolphy, most notably on Out to Lunch. Over the next few years, Hutcherson continued working as a sideman on several other landmark jazz recordings. He made more albums with McLean (including the astounding Action), Grachan Moncur, Andrew Hill, Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner and others. Hutcherson was also playing in bands with Archie Shepp and Charles Tolliver during this time.
While recording his first album with Jackie McLean, Blue Note chief Alfred Lion offered Hutcherson a recording contract. (Hutcherson's relationship with Blue Note would last longer than any other artist's except Horace Silver's, ending only with the demise of the label in 1977.) Most critics consider his first album as a leader, Dialogue, to be one of his finest. (Hutcherson had recorded another album, subsequently released as The Kicker, before Dialogue, but it was not released until 1999.) Hutcherson went on to record a string of unbelievably strong records for Blue Note throughout the 1960's. His run of recordings rivals that of any other artist on the label during this legendary time. Most of these recordings feature the drumming and compositions of Joe Chambers, one of Hutcherson's key associates during the period.
In the late-Sixties, after moving back to California, Hutcherson formed a quintet with Harold Land. To this day, the dry-toned tenor saxophonist is probably most well-known for his work with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet in the middle 1950's. Despite the fact that Land (born 1928) was a generation older than Hutcherson, the two had similar musical visions, and their collaboration produced some amazing work. (Each artist recorded in their own name; Hutcherson on Blue Note and Land on Cadet and Mainstream.) Unfortunately, Hutcherson's partnership with Land coincided with the rise of fusion and jazz rock, and there wasn't much of a market for the subtlety and balance that quintet offered. Since work wasn't regular, the group used several musicians for the rhythm section, depending on the location of the gig. (On Hutcherson's recordings, the drum chair continued to be filled by Joe Chambers.) If the timing were different, the group might easily have been recalled as one of the finest small groups in jazz history. As it was, much of the work that the group recorded didn't even get released until a decade or more later (Spiral and Medina). Other recordings by the quintet, like the superb Peace-Maker (issued in Land's name), have never even been reissued on CD. (However, it was recently released on CD in Japan.).
During the Seventies, there were dramatic changes in the jazz scene. Since Hutcherson resisted electronics and (in general) shied away from fusion, his music was perceived by some as less relevant. It is also true that some of Hutcherson's recordings in the Seventies were less ambitious than they had been during the Sixties. Nonetheless, despite some inconsistency, Hutcherson continued to make challenging, thrilling records throughout the decade. In general, I think his work from this period is enormously undervalued.
In 1971, Hutcherson released Head On, a large band recording featuring the compositions of Todd Cochran, a student of classical music. Much of the music is very grand and exciting, almost uncategorizable. It seemed to build on the efforts of Hutcherson's earlier, unconventional large-ensemble recording, Now! (1969). Other excellent recordings from the decade include Cirrus, with the luminous, transcendent composition "Even Later" (one of Hutcherson's best) and The View from the Inside. Sadly, except for Now!, none of these have been issued on compact disc. (Unbelievably, Inner Glow, recorded in 1975, has never been released anywhere except in Japan. Fortunately, Mosaic Records plans to release several of Hutcherson's 70's LP in a "Select" set soon.) In the last few years, Blue Note has reissued some of Hutcherson's funkier Seventies work (San Francisco and Montara). This music is more immediately appealing, even if it retains some of Hutcherson's characteristic thoughtful intensity (such as on "Procession" on San Francisco).
In 1978, after Blue Note's last gasp, Hutcherson move to Columbia. His work there wasn't as strong as it had been (or soon would be again), although Un Poco Loco, his third and final release on the label is quite good. Hutcherson also continued to work as a sideman throughout the Seventies, though less far less frequently than in the previous decade. His most notable contributions were two excellent albums with McCoy Tyner (Sama Layuca and Together), as well as some fine work with Prince Lasha (released on Lasha's private label, Birdseye).
The 1980's saw a resurgence in more traditional, bop-based jazz forms, and this was good news for Bobby Hutcherson. In general, Hutcherson style of playing during this period is more conservative than in his earlier work. Here he's working in a more conventional mainstream-bop mode. But his playing is never any less convincing. The changes in his style sounds like a natural evolution.
In the early Eighties, at the instigation of Dutch producer and Timeless record label owner Wim Wigt, Hutcherson joined with Harold Land, Curtis Fuller (tb), Cedar Walton (p), Buster Williams (b), and Billy Higgins (d) to form the Timeless All-Stars. The group was outstanding. Instead of just blowing without giving much thought to arrangements or interplay (like many all-star bands), the group had a fine sense of balance, a real ensemble sound. One can hear echoes of groups like the Jazztet and even the MJQ in The Timeless All-Stars. Their first two recordings (It’s Timeless: Recorded Live at Keystone Korner and Timeless Heart) are probably their finest, but Hutcherson sounded completely at home whenever he recorded with them.
Starting in 1984, Hutcherson began recording for Orrin Keepnew's Landmark label. Hutcherson's Good Bait was the very first recording issued by the label. He went on to make a series of very fine recordings, the highlight of which was a live release, In the Vanguard. Unfortunately, the label has subsequently gone out of business and the rights to the recordings have changed hands a few times. Currently, Savoy owns them, but they have chosen not to reissue the discs.
In 1985, Hutcherson participated in the re-birth of the Blue Note label by playing at celebration concert at Town Hall in New York. His work is captured on compact disc One Night With Blue Note, Vol. 1. Footage of the concert has also been released on DVD. Later that same year, Hutcherson participated in the soundtrack recording to the film Round Midnight. Hutcherson also had a minor role in the film.
The Eighties also saw a dramatic uptick in Hutcherson's work as a sideman. [In 1981 alone, Hutcherson participated as a sideman on no less than eight recordings (for Sonny Stitt, Harold Land, Chico Freeman, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, and McCoy Tyner). He also released his own Solo/Quartet LP in 1981.] Other highlights from the decade include Larry Vuckovich's Blue Balkan, McCoy Tyner's La Leyenda de la Hora, John Hicks' John Hicks, Frank Morgan's Reflections, Barney Kessel's Red Hot and Blues, and Andrew Hill's Eternal Spirit.
During the Nineties and into the present decade, Hutcherson has made fewer recordings, although he has kept up a steady touring schedule. One recent and exciting development in Hutcherson's musical life has been his involvement as a member of the San Francisco Jazz Collective. Beginning in 2004, the octet began touring every Spring. Each tour features compositions by members of the group, as well as the compositions of one "jazz giant," selected by Musical Director Joshua Redman. In 2004, the collective featured the music of Ornette Coleman. In 2005, it was John Coltrane. In 2006, the tour featured the music of Herbie Hancock. The group has released recordings from each of its tours, Inaugural Season Live and Live 2005: 2nd Annual Tour. Both of them are excellent, although the group seems more at ease on the second set. I suppose that Hutcherson's familiarity with Hancock's music--and the man--will only serve to make the music from 2006 even better.
Along with the SF Jazz Collective recordings, here are a few more worth highlighting from the last fifteen years: Hutcherson's own Skyline, his collaboration with McCoy Tyner on Manhattan Moods, his work on the Various Artists' compilation Acoustic Masters II; plus his sideman work for Kenny Barron, Other Places and Abbey Lincoln, Wholly Earth.
Hutcherson's work remains entirely compelling. He brings something special every time he plays. In recent years, it's especially noticeable on his recordings as a sideman. If he doesn't play on a particular track, you miss him. When he does play, everyone sounds better.