WARREN CHIASSON ALL-STARS at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), Wednesday (December 28), 9 pm. $16 advance. And WARREN CHIASSON LATIN JAZZ NIGHT at Lula Lounge, December 29, 9 pm. $16 advance. 416-588-0307. Rating: NNNNN
Although Nova Scotia's sleepy Acadian fishing village of Cheticamp may still be best known for hooked rugs and for providing Sadies drummer Mike Belitsky with the handle for his short-lived Halifax pop band, it's also the birthplace of Warren Chiasson, who John Wilson of the New York Times believes is "one of the six top vibraphonists of the last half-century."
That's quite a claim, considering how many great vibes players have made their mark on the jazz scene since the bebop era.
The top six would put Chiasson - who developed his own aggressive four-mallet technique as a member of the swinging George Shearing Quintet with percussionist Armando Peraza circa 1959-60 - in the esteemed company of Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Gary Burton and Terry Gibbs.
But wait a minute. Not that anyone would question the authority of a New York Times writer, but Bobby Hutcherson, Mike Manieri, Walt Dickerson, Johnny Lytle, Freddie McCoy and Dave Pike weren't exactly slouches. And what about Roy Ayers, Louie Ramirez, Jerzy Milian, Louis Hjulmand, Bosko Petrovic, Billy Wooten, Lennie Hibbert and Emile Normand?
"Well, there are many great vibraphone players who could be worthy of the same appellation," concedes Chiasson from his New York home. "What I think the Times critic was talking about was originality, and as one of the founders of the four-mallet system, I have a distinct style and sound on the instrument.
"Historically, the top vibes guys, like Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, were two-mallet players who would tell the rhythm section what chords they wanted and they'd work their magic on top.
"But in the late 50s and early 60s, Gary Burton, Mike Manieri and I independently started to explore a multi-mallet technique that gave us complete control of the vibraphone keyboard so it could be played like a piano.
"We each hold our sticks differently, and really our whole approach is different, which may be because I come from the bebop era. The bottom line is, I always wanted to swing and I always kept that at the forefront, which is what separates me from the rest."
What also distinguishes Chiasson is his willingness to throw himself into unconventional musical settings: famously, he co-composed the percussion parts for the original Broadway stage production of Hair, dropped in on various Doug Sahm sessions for Atlantic; and even sat in with Eric Dolphy at a "third-stream" concert conducted by Gunther Schuller at Carnegie Hall.
And unlike many of his fellow jazzers, Chiasson was also unafraid to creatively mess with the mechanics of the vibraphone, adding various effects pedals and amplification and even incorporating a wildly squeaking ring modulator at one point in the early 70s.
"It must've been around 1973, I got this gig at the Merchant's Tavern down in SoHo with Cecil McBee on bass and Beaver Harris on drums where I was experimenting with electronic vibes using the ring modulator and a wah-wah pedal, which was very popular at the time. There definitely were some strange and interesting sounds coming out of the instrument. We were actually getting some good reviews, too, but I soon got tired of the whole set-up and went back to playing acoustic. These days it's strictly acoustic vibes for me - I love that natural sound.
At the moment, Chiasson has a new book in production, The Contemporary Vibraphonist, which he says will deal with all facets of playing the vibes using his four-mallet system, including some practical tips about "how to move your instrument around, where to park your car for a gig, how to deal with the acoustics of different rooms."
It's precisely the sort of stuff he'll need to know for his two-night stand at the Lula Lounge, where he'll be joined by local scene stalwarts Lorne Lofsky, Neil Swainson, Terry Clarke, Joe Sealy and Kevin Turcotte on Wednesday and a Latin combo Thursday with Hilario Duran, Alexis Baro, Roberto Occhipinti, Mark Kelso, Chendy Leon, Luis Deniz and Joaquin Hidalgo.
"I've always had great respect for Toronto musicians, and I've long appreciated the Toronto scene. For me, Toronto always was one of the top places in North America to play jazz, and I still feel that way. It's a real honour for me to perform two dates for you guys."