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Tony Miceli: Vibes Matter

Victor L. Schermer By

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Tony Miceli is a long-time master vibraphonist who, until a few short years ago, was relatively unknown outside of the Philadelphia area, when he started getting requests to perform and teach all over the world. Now, he is in demand in Ireland, South Korea, Argentina, and Australia, not to mention New York and the West Coast, and the list of places is growing every day. Miceli deserves the newfound renown. He is widely regarded by the cognoscenti, including vibraphonists Gary Burton and David Friedman, as one of the ascending masters of the instrument. His work with groups like Monkadelphia (Monkadelphia; Dreambox Media, 2000) and The Jost Project (Can't Find My Way Home; Dot Time, 2013) are gaining increasing attention from jazz fans, and his new CD with violinist Diane Monroe (Alone Together; Dreambox Media, 2014) is raising eyebrows.

Miceli is interested in social networking and is bringing players of the vibraphone together in a worldwide exchange of ideas and approaches. He has established vibesworkshop.com for vibes players to interact, teach, learn, and develop musically with one another. This year, he established the first Vibraphone Congress with Leigh Stevens and Tom Meyers, bringing players together in person to establish a yearly meeting and a community to support their work. We can find inspiration in his philosophy that "Doing good for others is the basis of a successful career. The good comes right back to you."

All About Jazz, impressed by Miceli's dedication and incredible ability to transform any sheet of music into beautiful swinging jazz, wanted to find out how he has evolved as a musician since we last interviewed him in 2006. So we hooked up with him at his home studio, which is something like a "situation room" with its vibraphone in the center and an array of computers, amplifiers, recording equipment, and TV cameras, all connected to the internet, allowing him to instantly connect with co-musicians around the world.

All About Jazz: What were some of your earliest musical influences?

Tony Miceli: I was listening to a lot of rock music when I was growing up. And I was gravitating toward what I considered to be the more sophisticated players. I was thinking about which bands were best. I liked Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. I liked Yes. I was always seeking a higher level musically in all that. Meanwhile, my Italian-American parents were listening to Frank Sinatra, and every weekend we had Sinatra on. So indirectly, I was learning about "standards" which I also liked a lot. I found myself thinking about form and timing and other technical stuff as well.

AAJ: Did you have a music teacher?

TM: I started off playing guitar, in particular classical guitar. Then in my teens, I had a piano teacher Gene Davise and I had a drum teacher Joe Sher as well. I started playing guitar when I was six. By nine, I had two teachers—drums and guitar—and by fourteen, I had three teachers. Importantly, they were all very passionate about the music. They were actively playing gigs, so they could pass the fire along to you. My teachers would talk about their gigs, which probably helped me later. I think it's important to have teachers who are actively working. Mine were.

I remember going to a garage sale and buying the Miles Davis recording, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). At first, I was very confused by it. I thought, "This is weird," and I set it aside. Then, a few months later, I tried listening to it again, and that time I got it! It hit me! So then I started getting excited about jazz. The rock music was familiar to me and my friends, but not jazz. But then I started paying attention to jazz and asked my piano teacher for some names and started to listen to it a lot.

So I started out with rock, as well as my father's influence with the standards, and then accidentally got turned on to jazz. Sometimes I wonder if there would be more interest in jazz if we exposed kids to it more often. Is musical taste more a matter of nature, nurture, or peer influence? Anyhow, when I went to college at the University of the Arts, jazz became a major influence on me. I grew up in a mostly-white neighborhood, and going to college made me realize that all the stereotypes I had in my head were wrong. In college, I was exposed to European, Asian, African American, and Latino musicians and was impressed by how amazing they all were.

AAJ: Were you also exposed to classical music at UArts?

TM: I was studying all percussion, and had a classical percussion teacher for that. I played in the orchestra. But getting back to jazz, one of my biggest influences in college in the late 1970s in Philadelphia was saxophonist Larry McKenna. Of course, he's still very active. To me, he's an icon. I would put him up against anybody. Interestingly, I'm traveling a lot now, and every town I visit has an alleged saxophone icon like Larry! But they can't come up to his level of playing. Many of the classical musicians I met were very analytical but not really musical. By contrast, Larry simplified everything for me and emphasized how things sounded.

AAJ: But today, you sometimes perform with musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra...

TM: Yes, but it's mostly jazz we're playing. They are great musicians and great readers so this helps me a lot. They don't play jazz a lot so Larry [McKenna] and I are the ringers.

AAJ: Some classical musicians have trouble swinging and playing jazz. Do you think they can be taught to do it well, or is it just something you're born with?

TM: Most players can be taught to improvise. Only some of them can be taught to swing. There's a cultural factor. Even with myself, my way of swinging is different from what I hear, say, in an African American gospel group, or a blues group. That's not what I was exposed to early on. But I don't believe it's totally cultural; musicians can learn anything if they spend enough time studying and working on it.

AAJ: You're also making an important point that within jazz itself, there are many different musical cultures. It's sort of natural for a particular musician to gravitate to one style and not another.

TM: That's correct. I think jazz is a fusion of cultures. I know that jazz started with the African and Caribbean influences, but in the end jazz has become a fusion between European music, African music, and so on. Also, there are individual differences. Some guys play very intellectually, while others are more emotional and intuitive.

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