Matthias Lupri: Shadow of the Vibe
While vibraphonist Matthias Lupri is a relative newcomer to his chosen instrument, he has managed in the space of a only few short years, to emerge as an artist who is garnering increasing respect, not only as a player, but equally as a writer. With four albums under his belt, including the recently-released Transition Sonic , Lupri is amassing a remarkable amount of positive press for his work, which combines an interest in the jazz tradition with broader concerns. Truth be told, in fact, while he's somewhat new to jazz, he's been involved in the music industry for a considerably longer stretch, first as a drummer supporting rock, folk and country artists. And it's his broader reach, his interest in a vast diversity of music that is reflected in how he approaches his own work.
Early Musical Experiences
"I was born in Germany," says Lupri, "came to Manhattan, Kansas in the States, then eventually ended up in Canada in Alberta and grew up primarily in Cochrane, Alberta in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and started playing country music. I started playing drums through the school music programme and went through that whole scene, started getting into rock and roll as a drummer, and started playing country music with people like George Fox, before he was big. I did a lot of blues, folk, country and rock things around Western Canada for years. At the very end I was playing in some really hard rock bands in the '80s, and did that for five years."
But while Lupri could have continued on as a moderately successful working drummer, when he was in the recording studio he felt a certain deficiency. "I was doing a lot of recording sessions as a drummer," Lupri explains, "but never contributing pieces of my own music, so I decided I wanted to learn how to write and enrolled in a college programme where I was introduced to the vibes there for the first time."
Switching to Vibes and Gaining an Education
"It was basically hell for me," continues Lupri, "because I had no harmony or theory background at all and by this time I was already 24 years old and a drummer for years. I went into this programme and the funniest thing was that even though I was getting C's and D's I loved it so much. All my life I'd been getting A's and B's, but I didn't really care for some reason. I was in this music programme and getting Cs and Ds but I loved it so much; it was such a contradiction for some reason that I knew something special going on here. And I got introduced to Gary Burton's music by a teacher. The first record I bought by him was the Times Square record and also Bill Evans' Portrait in Jazz , I bought that album on the same day. And it was like, "Wow, what is this music?" I'd heard some Milt Jackson earlier and I wasn't really blown away, but when I heard that Gary Burton album it was just incredible. So I really just dug into it for a couple of years. But I was starting out at age 24, and I hadn't listened to any jazz at all up to that time. It started getting me to think of music other than rock and roll and also not as a drummer any more, but more as a musician."
But while Lupri was now introduced to the vibes and the world of jazz, he had yet to give up the rock and roll life. "That was a 2-year programme," explains Lupri, "and when I graduated I actually formed another rock band and went on the road for another five years in Canada, playing rock and roll in these hard rock bands. We did the whole circuit in Western Canada full time; I gave up my apartment because I was never home, we lived on the road. So I did that for years, but I always had some jazz with me and eventually I started bringing my vibes with me, thinking I should really stay on top of it. So for a couple of years, at the end, I brought my vibes with me on the road and practiced a lot during the day as we had a lot of free time. I did that for a number of years but ultimately decided I couldn't do this rock and roll lifestyle anymore and enrolled into Berklee and I went full steam ahead from there.
"I went through the whole four year programme," continues Lupri, "taking all kinds of courses which included theory, harmony, ear training, and history. I studied with vibraphonists including Victor Mendoza and took some master classes with Dave Samuels. Then I studied with Gary, which was great because he was more about the music and not the technique, the stuff you learned from the previous teachers. Gary was coming from a different perspective attitude, how you approached music in general, that kind of thing."
Being close to New York City, Lupri also spent a lot of time checking out other vibes players for inspiration. "I used to go check Joe Locke out in the Village in New York all the time," Lupri says, "when I was first learning. I'd just go down to New York and sit all weekend watching him play. I learned so much from watching Joe play all those guys, I'd go see Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Mike Manieri anybody I could."
Maintaining His Own Focus
Unlike some players who pay their dues working under the auspice of more senior players, Lupri has devoted his energy to developing his own craft his own way from the beginning. That's not to say he didn't do his share of lounge gigs working the standards book. I was also doing a lot of local gigs while I was in college," explains Lupri, "playing restaurants, any kind of gig I could get to learn how to play, doing the Real Book tunes. I had a steady gig at a café every summer for three-four days a week with a trio, just doing whatever I could do to learn to get my thing together.
"I've been mainly focusing on my own career from day one," Lupri continues. "I did do other sessions when I was at Berklee, and I have done other sessions since, here and there, but in terms of how many hours there are in a day and wanting to stay focused and not get side-tracked, I really turned down a lot of stuff and said, 'I just really want to do this.' I find when I start doing too many other projects I don't get done what I want to get done musically. And you also want to live a life outside music to a degree, so you can bring it back to your music. So there's something to be said about having time off and just enjoying life too. Trying to make it all work is an ordeal; balance is the tough thing, but that's what it's all about. I'm a lot happier now creating my own little world."
And while his jazz vernacular has definitely continued to grow, coming from a rock and roll drumming background, Lupri is also influenced by fusion music. "We had a fusion band called Stripes," Lupri explains, "that was a lot of fun and we did that for years, a real diverse international band of friends from Berklee. It's funny, in fact, I've been playing fusion from day one when I started playing the vibes, as well as straight-ahead music; there have always been these two worlds going on. And they sort of crisscross back and forth. I had that fusion band, Stripes before I started playing more straight-ahead stuff, and if you look at the popularity of the time, coming to Berklee in the early 90s when the new bebop renaissance was starting again, it was impossible to get a gig with a fusion group. And so I was somewhat forced to play more straight ahead - not that I minded, I loved doing that stuff too, but I tended to veer more to the fusion and, while I've been playing it since that point it just hasn't been recorded. But my first record, Window Up Window Down , was definitely more straight ahead, with Sebastian de Krom on drums, who is in Jamie Cullum's band now, and a saxophonist named Timo Verbole. Tim didn't have the chops that a lot of players had but he sure had this really beautiful tone. It was kind of reminiscent of the Stan Getz/Ben Webster thing."
And while some young artists would start out by interpreting tunes from the Great American Songbook, Lupri was already committed to pursuing his own writing. Looking back at Lupri's four releases there's nary a standard to be found. "Going back again into the history of why I started playing vibes," Lupri explains, "I said that when I was in the studio playing drums I'd come in and everyone was contributing music except me, and that was what made me want to go to school to study and learn how to write music. And from that point I realized I wanted to learn how to write music, to create my own music. That's what led me to the vibes, and to this day I'm really more inspired to create my own art via my own pieces of music than play standards. I love playing standards too, but for me there is this other level that I want to go to with my compositions that can't be reached via standards."
Same Time Twice
Lupri's next record, Shadow of the Vibe , was most notable for the appearance of saxophonist George Garzone, but it was with '02's Same Time Twice where Lupri really upped the ante, enlisting a number of semi-established up-and-comers whom he had met at Berklee, including guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Rueben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. "Well, they were at Berklee when I got there in '90," Lupri says. "I knew them from that point but I never actually played with them because I was just starting to get into the music. I knew of them and was following what they were doing since I got to Boston. Kurt was playing in Gary Burton's band and I was always checking out Gary's band so I caught Kurt there a lot. Larry Grenadier was in the band at the time as well, and Turner was here but leaving around that time. Reuben Rogers came a bit later actually, and was here until '97. Back then he was here in Boston playing around town. So I knew all these guys from that point, but never had the ability to play with them.
"But as I progressed," Lupri continues, "I always followed their careers and the music they were doing and when the time came that I wanted to record a new album and I didn't actually have a band that I was working with a lot at that point in time that was an established group, I just made it happen. I called them up and said, 'Hey, I'm doing this record in New York, do you want to do it?' I sent them Shadow of the Vibe and they liked the music and thought it would be something fun to do and so we did it and it just worked out. Of course it's impossible to keep the band together - everyone's got their own projects going on - but I have been doing a lot of dates with Mark Turner over the years. There's something about his tone that I really love, not even speaking about his technical ability and musicality. It's his tone I really love; he can play just one note and it draws me right in."
Maintaining Space and The Writing Process
A defining characteristic of Lupri's bands, from the very beginning, has been his avoidance of pianists. If he is to use any chordal accompaniment at all, it has always been with a guitarist. "I have played with pianists before," Lupri says, "but I approach my vibes like a pianist, I don't approach them like a sax. There are two schools of thought on the vibes, there's the two-mallet approach where you approach it like a horn player, and there's the four-mallet approach where you approach it like pianist. And so when I approach it like a pianist, if I play with a pianist it's like having two pianos in the band and as leader of the group I want to have more space. As soon as you have a pianist - and a piano tone is very, very thick - I definitely have to lay out more or the pianist has to be extremely sensitive to what I'm doing. Whereas I find, with the mixture of guitar and vibes, they blend better and you can play together more and not step on each others' toes as much. It does work with piano, but musically I've just not come across that exact sound I'm looking for with a pianist. I like playing with a guitarist - there's that rock edge to it, which I love, coming from a rock background. Having another chordal instrument on top of the vibes and guitar it just gets to be too much for me."
Still, while Lupri eschews the use of piano in his groups, he has used it as a compositional aid over the years. "I definitely started writing from piano before I started writing from vibes," Lupri says. "I started playing piano at the same time I started playing vibes, and although I can't play piano well, I did do a lot of writing on the piano. Lately I've been writing more on the vibes. But for years I lived in this apartment and had a piano that overlooked the window and I would just sit there for hours, look out the window, play piano and try to let things come naturally. My early records were heavily influenced by just sitting there at the piano and taking life in, thinking about life and with the background I have playing standards and bebop and also playing rock and roll and country, all this stuff kind of filtered into how I wanted to express what I was doing. Unfortunately my piano broke a couple of years ago, and so I've been doing a lot of writing from vibes lately, which changes things a bit, which is maybe a good thing. I also have an old drum machine from the '80s that I still keep around and use as a metronome, but I programme odd times into it, and can do certain things with it. It has certain limitations because it's from the '80s, but maybe that makes it a more interesting way of learning something, I don't know; forcing me to play along with the drum machine maybe makes for more interesting rhythms.
"Also," continues Lupri, "having that background playing standards and bebop stuff as well as more open rock and country music, blues, etc., I'm now approaching writing without even thinking about what they call functional harmony any more. Like a II-V-I progression, you can think and go to II-VI-II-V-I and analyze it until you're blue in the face and figure out music that way, but instead of going that whole route I'm basically now just thinking in terms of colours. I'll play a chord and it has a certain colour, so then what's the next colour going to be? And you play around until you find that colour. For me now it's a mixture of colours and shades and greys and darks and brights, busyness and emptiness, I try to think of things that way. And if it happens to turn into a II-V-I or something that fits into a certain category then so be it. But I'm not thinking that way, so that helps, and I'm going more and more that way all the time, trying to find different ways of approaching the writing process.
"Every record has been basically the same process," concludes Lupri, "even though it might sound like Same Time Twice is a collection of songs, it is sort of the same as Transition Sonic , as are my other CDs; representing a period of two years of my life writing music, trying to play and live this music write it, rehearse it, record it, go for long walks listening to it, changing things around to better suit what I'm trying to capture. Every album has basically been approached the same way, so you're living and breathing the music until you record it, then you move onto the next project and capture the next period of your life. But the material on Transition Sonic segues more than the others. Still, they all come from the same point of reference of time and space. Some tunes definitely sound more like segueing than others. Listen to Same Time Twice and you'll hear certain things that overlap from the Shadow of the Vibe I quote myself all the time."
Of Transition Sonic Lupri says that the album, "was derived from writing tunes over the past few years and trying to capture life into musical form, making a complete statement for the entire CD. It's from the present, but also a reflection on my past, with perhaps a glimpse into the future. If you think about 'Iceland Dark,' for example, I grew up on the prairies and you'd see the Northern Lights a lot, and they were just magnificent to see. I think back on that a lot, reflect on childhood a lot, and 'Iceland Dark' was about me remembering looking up at the sky at night and seeing dancing ghosts that I would just marvel at. I always thought they had arrived from the sun beaming off the ice caps on the other side of the earth, shining back up into the sky. Even though that's not the truth that's what I thought. I have a prairie tune that's about the openness of the prairies. If you look at people who grow up in New York and live in New York there's a certain grittiness and edge to the music, while people who live in Barbados - a little more relaxed. Every area has a certain sound that influences."
While Transition Sonic continues to feature Mark Turner and also enlists trumpeter Cuong Vu, best known for his recent stint as a member of Pat Metheny Group but a fixture on the New York scene for years, the rhythm section consists of a trio of players who haven't had a lot of exposure, but clearly deserve broader recognition. "They're great players I met in Boston, although they all live in New York now," Lupri explains. "We're been doing sessions and gigs for years, and they've been touring with me off and on for those years, more [guitarist] Nate Radley and [bassist] Thomson Kneeland first, and then [drummer] Jordan Person later. Nate and Thomson went to the New England Conservatory and Jordan to Berklee. They haven't recorded that much, but they can be found on other recordings."
Radley, while clearly a player with his own voice, comes from a similar place as Kurt Rosenwinkel, so it is clear that Lupri has a specific sound, a specific approach, in mind when looking for a guitarist. "I definitely found," says Lupri, "that when I was looking for players for the new record and doing sessions, Nate gave me what I wanted for the music at this particular time. I've played with a lot of great players but they haven't necessarily given me what I want for the colours I am searching for at this particular time. I've tried playing these tunes with guys who play traditional bebop and it just doesn't work, or maybe it worked but it wasn't the sound I was looking for. And as soon as you start playing with odd time signatures and you start looking for different palettes of colours, you need someone who can understand the headspace of what that means, and find the players who want to do that."
Technology and Music
Another notable characteristic of Transition Sonic is its more heavy use of electronics, by almost every member of the band. "I have a pickup system for my vibes that I bought back when I first started playing," Lupri explains, "so I've had it for years, but it doesn't really show up on my first albums as much. You can midi it or run analogue sounds through it. You can hear some of the midi on my website, but it was all analogue on Transition Sonic. There's chorus, reverb, flange, delay pedals, a looping machine - on 'Iceland Dark' I'm even playing with a violin bow. You can do things where you play with the bow in one hand, the mallets in the other and then you can loop a sound and play over top of that, so on 'Iceland Dark' you can hear the looping machine coming in and out of it. And Thomson does the exact same thing with his bass - he plays with a bow and he has a looping sound that he does in real time.
"I think as we progress over the years," Lupri continues, "technology becomes more organic as it becomes part of everyday life. Where I'm heading with my new CD is that we're so exposed to electronics and computers and everything. That's what Transition Sonic is all about - what does it mean? To me I'm transitioning into a sonic frame of mind, so in my daily life, you live your life and you have so may things going on, but when I transition back to my music world, into writing and playing live; it's a really beautiful place to be in and you fade in and out of that space and that's what the CD is all about."
Maintaining Consistency in Fluid Times
While Lupri continues to tour, the challenges of keeping a consistent band together, especially when many of the players are active leaders in their own right, mean that Lupri works from a growing pool of musicians he has come to know and trust to understand his personal musical vision. "When I did my Same Time Twice CD Release Party for example," Lupri explains, "I had the exact line-up, but Mark Turner couldn't make it, so I got Greg Osby to come in and play and that just took it in a totally different direction. I ended up doing more gigs with Osby and it was great. That's the beauty of jazz when you bring in different people and they take things to different places - sort of a similar direction but different, if you know what I mean. It opens up new colours and palettes.
"The jazz business is pretty messed up," Lupri continues, "and everybody's trying to hang in there - the leaders, the players, the sidemen; and it's hard for me to say to the group, 'OK, all next year we're touring here, and here are all the dates' and expect everyone to be available. Everything just sort of falls into place here and there and nothing is confirmed too far out in advance. People are just trying to keep busy, to keep working, so it's impossible to keep a steady band unless you're a Wayne Shorter. Even Rosenwinkel has different bands every time he tours. As a leader I realize this, and I don't count on things being exactly the same, with the exact same players. It's just impossible, unless you get to a certain level where you're making a certain amount of money and can have a retainer. But I try to keep a pool of similar players that I can call and make it work. It's just the way the business is, totally fluid."
Broadening His Exposure
Meanwhile, Lupri continues to push forward, promoting Transition Sonic with a number of upcoming dates that will feature saxophonist Myron Walden, from Brian Blade's Fellowship. And Lupri continues to expose himself to music from a variety of sources; some of them rather surprising. "I'm definitely checking out the latest Chris Potter record," says Lupri, "the latest Brian Blade record, everybody's latest record. I'm definitely checking out as much as I can. I just got on Amazon the other day and bought a CD by Steve Coleman, a Scriabin record, a disk of John Cage music and Phillip Glass, just to see what these guys are doing. I'm notorious for buying records blindly, as opposed to listening to sound bytes I go, 'This looks interesting, let me buy the record.' I'm always doing that and trying to get exposed to things I might not otherwise hear.
"I went to a Dio concert last year,' continues Lupri, "Ronnie James Dio, and I had the greatest time. I rushed the stage and I was two feet from the stage in Worcester, which is a really crazy town. For me to see Dio at my age and doing the music I'm doing - nobody would do that and, again, it opened up a whole new thing, craziness, a certain element of rawness and rock and roll attitude that I had when I was playing that music way back when. I bought the new Bjork CD, and I love her older stuff so it's interesting to hear her new stuff - she's an acquired taste but I really love it. I love Pat Travers, just the rawness of his sound, I love that. So all this stuff kind of filters in somehow."
Keeping Jazz Alive
"As an artist," concludes Lupri, "you just want to create your music, do the best you can, be honest with yourself and what you're doing and release the music. That's my approach, 'Here it is, this is what I want to do, I love this. Take it as it is, and if you get off on it great, it's there to enjoy and escape from or enhance other parts of your life, however you choose to view the music.' And keep an open mind too. I've come from playing a lot of different styles, I've put on a cowboy hat, put on spandex, and there's something about all these different worlds of music that's all good, all fun; it's all about culture, people's lives and what's going on. The only thing I've ever regretted is that in every genre I see the genre police, whether it's rock and roll, country, blues or jazz, there's the genre police and I'm definitely more of a one world person and let things go. I definitely have what I want to do and have a personal direction, but on the other hand I want to be open to as much as possible. Keep jazz alive."
Keep jazz alive. In a time where the genre has become marginalized, it's refreshing to hear that from a still-young artist who is not only committed to the music, but to broadening it to incorporate influences from a multitude of sources while still retaining its integrity and distinction. With a gradually evolving body of work that is garnering Lupri increasing critical and popular acclaim, there's no doubt that jazz will remain alive, vital and evolving.
Visit Matthias Lupri on the web at www.matthiaslupri.com .
Matthias Lupri Discography:
Window Up Window Down (Chartmaker Records, 1998)
Shadow of the Vibe (Chartmaker Records, 1999)
Same Time Twice (Summit Records, 2002)
Transition Sonic (Summit Records, 2004)
Read all the Matthias Lupri CD Reviews at AAJ.
Rick Diamond, Craig Bailey, Josephine Ochej, Nicholas Lue.