Survival has been very much on our minds this past week. The loss of one hardy perennial, Woody Herman, reminded us that the ranks are thinning; on the other hand, Lionel Hampton's concert Tuesday at the Ambassador in Pasadena focused welcome attention on the toughest survivor of them all.
Hampton has been leading a band, usually a big one like his present 17-man unit, for 47 years. As so often happens, he has tended to lean heavily on past successes while incorporating a reasonable quota of newer material.
More and more, the emphasis is now placed on the leader; as long as he stuck to the vibraphone, as he did during most of the first half, the magic was still in brilliant and dynamic evidence.
Hampton is indomitable. As he showed in a long solo on "Cherokee," he can build his ideas magisterially while the band, riffing and punctuating, supplies intermittent support. But his real tour de force was "Skylark," performed simply with the rhythm section. As he moved from straight melody to simple variations to fierce flurries of 16th notes, he seemed more than ever in command of the instrument he brought to the attention of the jazz public more than half a century ago.
Along with Hamp the vibraphonist, of course, there is Hamp the entertainer and showman--singing, scatting, taking his turns at the drums, shouting ancient code words like "Hey-baba-rebop" and creating an atmosphere of simulated pandemonium.
Though the orchestra has become more and more a backdrop for these shenanigans, there were a couple of superior soloists among the seven or eight heard, notably Joe Magnarelli on trumpet and Cheryl Howard, who materialized for the second half to sing two Ellington numbers. A few unfamiliar arrangements were heard, with John Gordon's trombone well showcased in "My Shining Hour."
As the evening wore on, it lapsed into familiar routines, from "Hamp's Boogie Woogie" to "Flyin' Home" and "In the Mood." This capitulation to popular taste is an inevitable climax to every Hampton performance, and the Pasadena public ate it up. By the time the band got through it had done everything but break into a community tap dance.
Meanwhile, those of us who had come to hear the real artistry of Lionel Hampton had enough memories of that first half to keep us satisfied until his next visit. The great man's feet carry him more slowly today, but those magical hands have never been retarded by time.