If you ever get the chance to hear Michael Hanf play his vibraphone in an intimate, solo setting, you'll notice there's something more going on than just the cool, resounding harmonies of the thick, metal keys on his instrument. Along with the light squeak of his pedal, methodically dampening the keys that would otherwise vibrate for minutes, there's an audible sound from his mouth. Even in a wildly energetic free-improvisation, he's singing what he's playing, his whole body and mind fully immersed in his creation.
A jazz and composition major at the College of Charleston for the past three years, Hanf is already a full-time professional musician. He's an active member of the New Music Collective, one of Lindsay Holler's Dirty Kids, and part of the Kevin Hackler Quintet. In addition to those prestigious groups, he's regularly called upon to sit in for gigs with singer Elise Testone, drummer Quentin Baxter, and virtually every other jazz-esque player in Charleston.
"Whenever I work with Quentin, it's always a lesson," says Hanf. "We don't always work together in an academic environment, but he's my professor in real life, and he's been a great inspiration."
Hanf came from a percussion background, having played drums since the fourth grade. "When I got to middle school, I was the wimpy, skinny kid, so everybody else wanted to play drums and they threw me on a little bell set," he recalls. He played bells and drums throughout high school, before a college professor during his freshman year at USC recommended he try out a vibraphone.
Although the sound speaks for itself, watching Hanf play is an experience of its own. With two mallets in each hand, he adjusts the space between them to hit chords and melodies simultaneously, moving rapidly through the instrument's four-octave range. Where a vibraphonist with a history playing piano might tread lightly, Hanf's past as a drummer is remarkably evident.
"It's a powerful instrument, and it's got a good tone to it," says Hanf, moments after performing a jaw-dropping solo rendition of "If I Only Had a Brain." "I like the freedom of it, and working in between improvisational and preconceived music. I just wish I could bend notes like on a guitar."
He's still an undergraduate. Give him some time and he might figure that out too. — Stratton Lawrence