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.

Vibraphone Approaches and Styles

AAJ: Up to now we haven't mentioned vibraphone. To bring our discussion forward time-wise, you ended up playing vibes. Sometimes, it seems to me that all vibes players play the same way, but of course when you listen carefully they are different. So, to get an idea of the differences, how would you compare your own vibes playing to that of other vibes players, let's say Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, and Joe Locke?

TM: Those are three incredible players. I can say what I learned from each of them. From Gary, I learned about four-mallet playing. And he had a different feel from the bebop players; he grew up in the Midwest and then was influenced by guys in the scene up in Boston, like Pat Metheny. Milt Jackson is such an amazingly natural musician. From him, I learned about line, how it varies over time. Like Pablo Casals said, it's like a rainbow. From Joe, who is a great personal friend of mine, he's paid his dues like nobody, had to work very hard to get where he is, and I admire that above everything. He incorporates many influences from Gary Burton, Milt Jackson, and Bobby Hutcherson. He would sometimes show me these great lines he's learning from Bob Berg and others. Joe is able to play what you might call "sheets of sound" on vibes. Bobby Hutcherson can also do that. And Gary is mainly a four-mallet player. Milt Jackson was a two-mallet player. Joe Locke does both two-and four-mallet playing. Another unbelievable player is Mike Mainieri, and he separates them—chords with four mallets, and when he goes solo, he puts two of the sticks aside—I call those guys "stick-droppers," not as a criticism, just the way they approach it.

AAJ: What do you mean when you say that Joe Locke paid his dues?

TM: He struggled a lot in the beginning. He and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and the rest of the band had to play on the street to raise rent money. Lots of musicians struggle financially, but Joe is my friend and I've heard his stories from him. It was pretty rough at some points. He and Magnarelli really earned their place in jazz.

AAJ: You have a unique way of holding the four mallets. Could you describe it and tell us what its value is to you as a player?

TM: Every vibes player has his own way. But I once went to hear Gary Burton play, and it was back in the days when I used drugs, and I was really high, which I no longer do. That's why I call it the "Stoned Grip!" I was so wasted that I thought he was playing in a unique way! He wasn't, but I imagined it. I thought he held two fingers between the two sticks in each hand instead of one. I wanted to play like Gary Burton, so I started doing it, but of course I found out later that he has one finger in the middle! But it turned out I love my grip with the two fingers in between. One reason for that is that I grew up listening to guitar players and how they play. While a pianist uses to hands to play the notes, a guitarist has only one hand—the other is picking. A vibes player is somewhere in the middle. We can use both hands, but we don't have the speed of all five fingers to use like a pianist. I bring my hands together to play melodies, and then add notes to play the chords. Using the two fingers between the mallets seems to facilitate me doing it.

My five favorite vibes players have five different grips. Like brass and reed players fight over embouchure, mouthpieces, and reeds to use, we vibes players fight over different grips. In my opinion, each player should use whatever works best for him.

Musical Ventures and Adventures

AAJ: I'd like to ask a question that perhaps would be difficult for anyone to answer. As a practical and personal matter, how would you define "jazz" as a form of music? I'm asking this because in many ways you transcend specific genres, including classical and rock among other approaches.

TM: My definition is more limited than some other players. A crucial element of jazz for me is "swing." I sometimes play in countries where swing isn't emphasized. I recently played with a guy who wanted everything broken up rhythmically and didn't want to make it swing. So I went along with him, but in my mind I thought, "Man, you're missing something." If you're a musician who can swing really well, you understand the magic of it. For me, when I listen to Philadelphia-based jazz musicians like Byron Landham or Mike Boone or Sidney Simmons [a pianist icon in Philadelphia, who passed away in 2010 -Eds.], their swing is magical. Landham has assimilated the artistic and cultural essence of swing perfectly. So for me, swing is the essence of jazz.

The problem is that musicians are now bringing in a lot of new things, so I have to adjust. But in my heart I know it's about swing. But you also have to respect people who are pushing the envelope like Vijay Iyer, Kenny Werner, Brad Mehldau, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, but their innovations are within the jazz tradition. Then you have guys that play no swing and say it's jazz. My own tastes are more narrow.
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