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Anthony Smith: For Love of the Vibraphone

Anthony Smith

Anthony Smith has been back in San Diego for about a year and appreciates our town more than ever. “I am so fortunate,” Smith says. “San Diego is such a great place to live, teach, and to be a player.”
The jazz vibraphonist, author, and educator returned to San Diego after a four-year stay in New York City. Glad to be back, life in New York nonetheless opened up a lot of opportunities for Smith. “New York is the Mecca of jazz. Any serious jazz musician asks, ‘How would I do? How would I measure up in New York? Am I up for the challenge?’ I got to fulfill those questions,” he says.

Things had been going well for Smith before the move, but his wife, who works in high tech, was offered a job in New York. “I wound up doing a lot of music. I gained more prominence, and I had the opportunity to connect with musicians I admire. And I accomplished more than I had anticipated,” Smith says. “I was able to parlay the move into conducting vibraphone workshops in Europe. I did that a couple years in a row. That wouldn’t have happened had I not been in New York.”

Smith also partnered with fellow vibraphonist Tony Miceli to put on vibraphone boot camps, gatherings for vibes students, performers, and enthusiasts to attend demonstrations, workshops, and lectures on playing the vibraphone. The two created boot camps in New York and Philadelphia, as well as northern and southern California. While he was in New York Smith organized what he calls “jazz vibe hangs.” He would form a rhythm section for the hang, then invite a group of vibes players, notable performers such as Joe Locke, Tony Miceli, and Tom Beckham, and have each player perform a mini concert as part of the gathering.

While he was in New York, Smith began work on a two-disk project that he is finishing up here in San Diego. Songs From a Lighter Planet is Smith’s jazz reworkings of classic eighties tunes. You might think of it as the Mixtape musical, but with a string bass and more diminished chords. “I wanted to create new standards for jazz musicians to express themselves, something more than the stuff that we always rely on, the standards from the forties and fifties,” he says. Smith has drawn on some of the best of the eighties, with arrangements of tunes by Duran Duran, UT, Simple Minds, The Police, Depeche Mode, and Mr. Eighties himself, Sting.

“The eighties get a bad rap, but this was a time when harmonies were well-crafted and a premium was placed on instrumentalists and their abilities,” Smith says. “They had some great session musicians doing some great stuff on those recordings. Listen to what Michael Jackson and Prince were doing. They got the best studio guys. With the nineties you get a new set of bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, where everything is angst-driven. I’m not saying that it was bad, but it’s nice to draw on the music of when you were young.”

In these jazz adaptations, Smith never changes the melody or lyric of the original song. You will definitely recognize that nugget from high school when you had the radio dial glued to 91X. Rather, Smith plays around with the harmony or rhythm of these songs. For example, he may take a song that is in the standard 4/4 time of pop and rock and stretch that tune into the challenging time signature of 7/8. Or he might simply reinterpret a pop song like A-ha’s “Take Me On” as a bossa nova. “Forming these hybrids, there is the vitality of fusing different genres,” he says.

Describing the project as something of a collective, there are several performers involved in interchangeable musical positions. Different singers–Rebecca Jade, Leonard Patton, and Sacha Boutros–can front the band vocally. Besides the disk, the ensemble has performed around San Diego, with a number of performances at the U.S. Grant Hotel.

Smith likes to call himself a writer, and he has very good reason to do so. He came out with a book in 2012, an Anna Karenina-length (700 pages!) memoir of life as a musician. The Lizard Stays in the Cage has been described as irreverent, funny, and a “must read” for aspiring musicians. The subject matter and style has drawn comparisons to Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.

With his second book, Smith transitions from Hunter Thompson to Studs Terkle, creating an oral history of the vibraphone. For Masters of the Vibes: Conversations With Great, Living Jazz Vibraphonists Smith interviewed 30 prominent and soon-to-be prominent vibraphonists. “Living in New York I was around and working with some of the greatest vibe players,” Smith says. “The book was a real labor of love. I had a clear vision of what I wanted. I did all the interviews and transcriptions. I wanted to talk to these musicians about the instrument, about a career as a musician, and life as an artist.” Learning of this book project, Lee Howard Stevens, of Malletech came forward and offered to be the publisher for the book. It has already received praise for revealing some of the history of the vibraphone and shining a light on an instrument that is often overlooked.

You don’t find vibes with banjos and fiddles making bluegrass music. If you put “Beatles” and “vibraphone” into a Google search, you get the message: “Look somewhere else, buddy.” As a lead and improvisational instrument, the vibes are, unfortunately, in my opinion, almost entirely restricted to jazz.

The vibraphone consists of tuned metal bars that the vibraphonist plays with soft mallets. Laid out in a keyboard configuration, each bar is paired with a resonator tube whose resonance can be “stopped” with a valve. The vibraphonist can manipulate the valves to produce long or staccato notes; the valves can also open and close by means of a motor, producing a tremolo effect. Vibraphones look like and are played similarly to marimbas and xylophones, the main difference being that the tuned bars of the marimba and xylophone are made of wood.
The vibraphone was developed and first put on the market in the early 1920s. Almost overnight it became the most featured instrument in recordings, as its definite percussive sound made the vibes one of the more easily recorded instruments for the recording technology at the time.

Quite popular in the 1920s, recording companies produced what were called “novelty records,” songs that were lighthearted and humorous, such as “From the Indies to the Andes in His Undies” or “As the Porcupine Pines For Its Pork.” The sound of the vibraphone became closely associated with these amusing recordings. By 1929 players started bringing vibes to jazz recording sessions. “Memories of You” by Louis Armstrong, with its intro performed by Lionel Hampton on the vibes, is regarded by many as the first jazz recording to incorporate the vibraphone.

Notable performers of the vibraphone are Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Red Norvo, Cal Tjader, and Gary Burton. If you’re determined to find the use of the vibes in pop or rock, it’s pretty meager. That really cool riff that backs up the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” is performed on the vibraphone. Ani DeFranco is known to perform with a vibe player. The internet will tell you that “Moonlight Feels Right,” the 1975 chart buster by the one-hit-wonder band Starbuck features a vibraphone. That is wrong. The solo is performed on a xylophone. The one performer to be given the credit of bringing the vibes to popular audiences is Frank Zappa. The unorthodox composer and performer incorporated xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone into many of his compositions and recordings.

The vibes have always been a part of Smith’s life. The Santa Clara native grew up with a vibraphone in his home. Smith is also a pianist, and his name was more closely associated with that instrument for a number of years, but his true love was with the vibraphone. “I’ve been in love with the instrument since I was a teen,” he says. “There is a club called the Garden City Night Club, and I saw Bobby Hutchinson there. That was absolutely one of the most inspiring moments of my life.”

Smith originally came to San Diego to study music at San Diego State University. The 49-year-old father of two is now an instructor at SDSU, teaching vibraphone and piano performance. Smith also conducts small jazz ensembles. He serves as a guest lecturer and accompanist for student auditions and performance juries.

Smith says that it was a quality of life decision to return to San Diego. “It’s great how well received I’ve been back in San Diego,” he says. “And it’s so exciting to work with the great musicians here.”

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