The best of Peter Appleyard: Five essential albums by a master of mallets

Peter Appleyard was a beloved fixture in the Canadian music scene and a world-renowned musician with an incredible career that spanned more than six decades.

Born in the U.K., the vibraphonist, percussionist and composer began playing music in dance bands and with the Royal Air Force. In the 1950s, he moved to Canada and spent decades playing in jazz clubs and on CBC Television (including co-hosting the show Mallets and Brass with his good friend Guido Basso in 1969). He also hosted a TV show from 1977 to 1980 called Peter Appleyard Presents that was syndicated across North America.

Appleyard was known for his versatility and sense of humour. In 1997, while performing on the TV show Electric Cocktail, he said to the band, “I’ve played Carnegie Hall with Benny Goodman and Tokyo with Dick Hyman… Now I’m on MuchMusic playing the Love Boat theme with Jaymz Bee — nobody can say my career is boring!”

That’s certainly true. From the ’60s right up until his death in 2013, Appleyard recorded and played with numerous other luminaries including Duke Ellington, Lenny Solomon, Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra. Some of Appleyard’s other career highlights include earning a gold album for his Swing Fever recording (with arrangements by Rick Wilkins) in 1982, being named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1992, and receiving the Queen’s Diamond and Jubilee Award in 2012.

I’m happy to say I lost count how many times I was able to witness Appleyard’s mastery of the vibraphone live in concert. I suppose I should also mention that I hired him on many occasions to play with me. For every gig or every recording, I wrote him a check for $555.55. This was not his usual fee, but we were friends and I started off as a young, starving artist. As time passed, he continued to only ask for exactly $555.55. It was a fitting display of his playfulness, humility and generosity.

In addition to his work as a live musician and studio player, Appleyard recorded more than a dozen albums as a leader of his own bands. Among the rarer or under-heralded gems are the ‘90s live recordings Barbados Cool and Barbados Heat, the long-lost album Peter Appleyard and the Jazz Giants: The Lost Sessions 1974, and a slew of noteworthy releases between 1963 and 1973 courtesy of the Canadian Talent Library.

But for those looking for the best introduction to the music of Peter Appleyard, these five albums are a great place to start.

Percussive Jazz (1957)

This album has been a hit at private salons and parties among the Toronto jazz scene for decades. Some might say the overdone stereo effects are a bit much, but the playing is so good it’s more fun than dated. Some of the highlights are Dragnet, Harlem Nocturne, Peter Gunn and a really whacky version of Mack the Knife.

The Vibe Sound of Peter Appleyard (1959)

Appleyard plays classic jazz songs that work perfectly on the vibraphone, including Avalon, Satin Doll and Moonglow. This guy is so hip, he can even make Strike Up the Band swing.

Sophisticated Vibes (1976)

In record shops, you can find this album filed under jazz, funk, soul, pop or easy listening; it seems that nobody quite knows what genre best describes this virtuoso. Here, Appleyard takes on Tico Tico, If and Feelings, as well a gorgeous rendition of the hit song Moonlight Feels Right. With all the tunes clocking in around three minutes, it’s an engaging and tightly efficient record that was a hit on the radio.

Peter Appleyard Presents (1977)

The opening track Open the Gates of Love is so groovy, you just know you’re in for a good time! If there’s one Peter Appleyard album to bring to a listening party, this is it. The direct-to-disc stereo recording features an all-star lineup of Canadian jazz musicians Ed Bickert, Moe Koffman, Rob McConnell, Guido Basso and Dave Young, among others. Another highlight is Who Needs It? by bassist Dave Young.

Sophisticated Ladies (2012)

Appleyard’s final album was easily one of his most impressive. His stellar band backs up a who’s who of Canadian jazz vocalists including Jackie Richardson, Barbra Lica, Emilie-Claire Barlow and Elizabeth Shepherd. Sophisticated Lady, sung by Molly Johnson, is a particular highlight.

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