Lionel Hampton - "Hamp's Big Four"

Lionel Hampton • Hamp's Big Four • 1956 • Verve Records MGV-8117
Recorded April 12, 1954 at Fine Sound Studios, NYC

The Players:
Lionel Hampton - Vibes
Oscar Peterson - Piano
Ray Brown - Bass
Buddy Rich - Drums

The Tracks:
A1. That Old Black Magic
A2. Blues For Norman
B1. It's A Blue World
B2. When The Saints Go Marching In
B3. Midnight Sun

The Music:

I normally don't take a second glance at Lionel Hampton records when I come across them, but this cover caught my eye for a couple of obvious reasons, first off it appeared to be a vintage Verve pressing and the sidemen he was playing with were all jazz legends. It's not that I have anything against Hampton, he is one of the most well known figures in jazz who virtually invented the use of the vibes in jazz, but I generally stray away from big band and swing recordings when I'm out digging through the jazz racks. This session is excitingly different from any notion I had of Hampton's work, a quartet session with three amazing improvisers who made an exciting record that fits in great with the direction the jazz world was taking in 1956.

I do recall reading that Hampton was a very open-minded musician, and that is confirmed on this outing, as while his playing on the vibes may still be rooted in his swing style, he fits in great with the modern style that Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich are playing. These are three cats who were equally comfortable playing swing, bop or straight-up modern jazz, and Hampton shows he belongs. One of my favorite aspects of this record is how much fun these guys seem to be having, just check out "When The Saints Go Marching In" above, with Ray Brown taking up vocal duties and all four musicians clearly having a blast.

All the tracks are equally fun and keep the listeners interest, and while Hampton's playing may not reach the inventive heights of my favorite vibe players (Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson), he did not become a household name in jazz for no reason, his soloing is exciting and fresh. Oscar Peterson is fantastic as well (he has become one of my favored jazz pianists over the last few years), and Brown and Rich are the reliable steady and improvisational rhythm section that you would think they would be. Overall, a great listen that features phenomenal players and one that you can grab without breaking the bank.


The Vinyl:

My copy is a bit mysterious. After some research I found plenty of copies with the same label as mine in the familiar yellow, but couldn't find any examples that matched the black label with trumpet player. I also couldn't find any images of the Clef MGC 744 pressing, of which this Verve release is supposedly a reissue. A Google search of the Clef catalog number brought up plenty of references to the album, however all the dates associated with it's release are 1956 which is the year that Verve absorbed the Clef records catalog. All this has me leaning towards the idea that perhaps it was never actually released on Clef and jumped right to the "Clef Series" on Verve, but I don't have any evidence other than it is really strange to not find any images of a corresponding cover or label (especially on eBay or Discogs).

original (?) label: Yellow with trumpet player (photo from Ebay)

Since my label is black and not yellow, I will have to guess that it is not an "original" pressing - that seems to be the yellow label - but it is still a heavy Deep Groove piece of vinyl that sounds fantastic even with some crackles and pops from abuse over the years. The final oddity is that the MGV-8117 catalog number is pressed (rather than inscribed) into the vinyl while the original Clef catalog number MGC 744 is hand-inscribed along side it. Oh well, just another day of trying to figure out the many eccentricities of label design and notation of vintage jazz pressings. 

While this is a rare record, you won't be paying prices that correspond to it's scarcity. I grabbed mine for $10 and while there aren't many copies to be had online, you should be able to score one on the yellow label for under $30 if you are patient. As I said above, I haven't seen any copies with the black label, so no telling what is a common selling price for that edition. 

Photo  © Lionel Hampton Archives

Photo © Lionel Hampton Archives

Final Thoughts:

Four jazz legends, all bringing their fantastic talents to the proceedings, there's not much more to say about the record that the lineup of musicians won't tell you about it. It's a great straight-ahead modern jazz session that shows off some of the finest of what the jazz world had to offer in the mid-1950's.