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Back on the vibes

For Thomas Mackay, one thing stands between him and his beloved vibraphone: gluten. "For years and years and years, when I was playing vibraphone in the Midwest and touring, I started getting carpal tunnel and tendonitis," says the Central Point musician.

"When I moved here four years ago, I did one show with Tom Stamper and Jeff Addicott at the Avalon, and literally after that gig, my hands failed. I had to make the decision to quit playing altogether or switch to a different instrument. So I sold the vibes and concentrated on keyboards and reggae music. ... I assumed my hands wouldn't be able to do it anymore. In April of this year, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Two weeks after I started that (gluten-free) diet, all that inflammation in my hands went down and I was able to play my vibraphone again with no pain."

Mackay says he was elated to learn he could play again. He put away his keyboard and left the reggae band SYNRGY and started forming his own projects around his vibraphone. He's formed a trio, tentatively called The Mackay Project, with bassist John Zalabak and drummer Kelvin Underwood. The trio, playing Mackay's original music, will debut Friday, Oct. 19, at South Stage Cellars.

Mackay and Zalabak also are part of GT's Jazzmaniacs, featuring drummer GT Albright, vocalist Sherlyn Smith, bassist Mike Pugh and "the band's pride and joy," saxophonist Bud Berlingeri, who played with acclaimed jazzman Louis Prima in the '50s.

Mackay will perform be-bop and modern jazz instrumentals with the Ed Dunsavage Trio — Dunsavage on guitar, Chicken Hirsh on drums and Joe Cohoon on upright bass — at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, at Roxy on Main, 410 E. Main St., Medford. The show is free.

"This show will pay homage to the guys who sort of influenced me on vibes — Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton," Mackay says.

Back in the Midwest, Mackay, who has a degree in percussion from University of North Dakota, fronted several quartets and trios, freelanced and taught jazz improvisation at a community college.

"I'm a Midwestern mutt," he says. "I moved here from the Chicago area and Northern Indiana ... because I was tired of the snow."

He says he loves the vibes for its percussive and melodic qualities.

"Vibes are fairly new," he says. "They came into being in 1929. They came from old vaudeville shows. Lionel Hampton was one of the first to introduce the instrument to the jazz repertoire.

"More modern players use four mallets, so they can play it like a piano or guitar."

For more information, see www.reverbnation.com/themackayproject.

Thomas Mackay says vibraphones are both both a voice and a gift. - Photo by Bob Pennell