May 21, 2001 10:49: Mallet Man Slays Crowd. No, not a maniac-on-the-loose shock headline, but the typical reaction to the vibrant and exciting vibes and marimba-playing of American percussionist Steve Hobbs.

Now, for the very first time, he'll be wreaking mayhem with his musical mallets for British audiences as he embarks on his first-ever visit to the

United Kingdom.

"I'm bubbling with excitement at playing over there," he told me by phone from his home in South Carolina.

Judging by the enthusiastic press reaction to Hobbs' newly-released album with the Kenny Barron Trio, Second Encounter (Candid CCD 79760), British audiences are in for a real treat.

The vibes have a bit of a rarity value anyway, and the freshness of Hobbs' playing and of his own compositions make his concerts really special.

He is a superbly swinging musician whose last three album releases have reached the top 10 most-played jazz recordings on American radio.

His style is very much his own, although there are influences by earlier generation vibes superstars Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton.

He's still in his prime, working with the finest of the "modern mainstream" in jazz, such as John Patitucci, Rufus Reid and Tom Harrell.

Expect the unexpected from Steve Hobbs on his four appearances in the south east: Friday, May 25, at the Pizza Express, Maidstone (01622 683549); Saturday, May 26, for the cabaret supper at Blackheath's Clarendon Hotel (020 8318 4321); Monday, June 4, at the Mycenae House Performance Class, Mycenae Road, Blackheath (01689 875683); and Thursday, June 14, at The Studio, Beckenham (020 8663 0103).

Chris Howes