Chris Dingman: Embracing Life's Challenges
Photography by: Zachary Maxwell Stertz
Vibraphonist and composer, Chris Dingman has just released his new album, Embrace. His latest work is focused on music for solo vibraphone as well as his trio. Embrace, was awarded the prestigious New Music USA project grant and features features Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tim Keiper on drums, and was produced by Keith Witty.
We got the chance to ask Chris about what went into making the album and the inspiration behind it.
BLEUBOP: Can you tell us a little about your background and what made you ultimately choose the vibraphone?
Chris Dingman: Music was always big for me from an early age. I started on piano when I was nine and drums, which became big for me, when I was twelve. Tried some mallet percussion in high school, and enjoyed it, but didn’t think of it as something that could be my primary instrument. When I showed up at my first meeting with my college advisor, randomly in the astronomy department at Wesleyan University, he heard what I was into, and called the professor of music and vibraphonist Jay Hoggard. I went to Jay’s office right away, and he asked me if I played vibes. I said I had tried it, but my main thing was drums. His response, “You’re gonna play vibes.” Jay was extremely generous with his time and expertise, and after a few months in his improv class, he offered to teach me private privately. I loved the sound and being able to play melodically, but I still thought of myself as a drummer.
A couple years later, I had just arrived in Kerala, in the south of India, to study Carnatic music, specifically the mridangam. Five days into being there I got a call from my parents, a close friend of mine had died. It was a life-altering summer of working through grief, I tried to understand what had immediately changed in me after hearing that news. Trying to decide what to do with my life, and what was most important to me, the facade of feeling like I had to follow a stable career path fell away and I realized two things: 1. I needed to play music for the rest of my life. And 2. vibraphone was my main instrument. It was clear from that moment that I was a vibraphonist.
BB: The Subliminal and the Sublime and its predecessor, Waking Dreams, both were written for a sextet. What made you decide to write for a trio this time and what challenges went into that?
CD: I loved creating music for larger groups, but on a practical level I found it frustrating how difficult it could be to line up performances. So I wanted to create a musical context in which I could more easily get out there and play. The main challenge was that I wasn’t terribly excited about leading the trio format! It’s so exposed, and the vibraphone doesn’t necessarily lend itself to filling out the sound the way the way a piano or guitar can. I needed to find new ways of playing the instrument, ways that I could feel good about on my own and/or with the trio. It took a few years to figure it out. It was around that time that I started practicing hand independence, ways to keep parts going with my left hand and fill out the sound and melody with my right hand. Developing these techniques created a surge of creativity and opened up new ideas for using using the vibraphone as the lead instrument.
BB: Embrace, reflects on the life challenges you were going through at the time. What was the creative process of honing those challenges into compositions?
CD: I often think of music as a form of therapy. It’s cathartic to get out your emotions through sound. Amazingly, it’s possible for difficult feelings like sadness and even anger to get somehow transformed through music into something beautiful, it's one of music's main functions in my life. So I naturally let the difficult things come out when I’m playing, improvising. I will often record the ideas, raw and un-edited, before writing them down but once I do get it down on paper, it changes into a process of developing the ideas, seeing where it wants to go. There's still a lot of searching for what feels right as far as playing it through and the feeling involved, but sometimes it all flows out in one sitting - thats what happened with the tunes “Mudita" and “Goddess."
BB: How would you say your approach is on vibraphone compared to piano?
CD: For me, playing vibes vs. playing piano is different. The two instruments access different planes, or different areas of my mind. The piano is this deep, soulful, earthy sound in the low end, playfulness in the high end. The vibes end up being more of a flow, accessing a stream of consciousness that goes and goes, like a dream world.
BB: The songs “Inner Child” and “Hijinks and Wizardry,” both have hints of childhood playfulness. How has your childhood shaped your musical journey?
CD: It’s funny, yes childhood plays a big role in this album. The creativity that you have as a child is easy to lose as you grow up, and I think after a certain amount of time I was starting to lose touch with why music was so important to me to begin with. I did some self work through meditation and therapy and, as a result, have found it easier to access that childlike quality in myself, which happens to be musical. That was the origin of “Inner Child.” I wrote more about the process in a blog post on my website at www.chrisdingman.com/blog.
Then, there is this connection to childhood through teaching. I work often with children, teaching music lessons. I realized a while back that what is most important to me is helping them connect with their own creativity. As a result, I started getting a lot more creative and I'm more inspired from the joy of teaching. "Hijinks and Wizardry" comes directly from that. I wrote it immediately after teaching a lesson.
BB: A few of the songs like “Ali” and “Goddess” are influenced by Malian art. What drew you to West African music? How were you able to bridge traditional music with your own?
CD: Two things that hit me hard when I first heard them: the exclamatory, melismatic style of the Malian Griot singers, and the entrancing, multi-layered sound of kora music. I was in my mid-20s when I first started getting into Toumani Diabate’s kora music, I listened to it every day. But I didn’t think anything about trying to learn it at the time - I just loved listening to it. A little later, it was maybe 7 or 8 years ago, I suddenly decided I needed to learn more about the Malian singers I had heard - why was I missing out on this?! I had this one compilation of Malian music called “In Griot Time,” which I got while in college after being turned on to various forms of West African music by Jay Hoggard and by ethnomusicologist Eric Charry. I started buying everything I could from the musicians on that compilation and getting more into it from there. Oumou Sangare became a huge favorite for me.
Over time listening to and loving the music, I naturally had it going on in my head. Eventually it just started coming out organically in my playing, and I decided to try to explore that more, trying to adapt some of the kora music onto the vibes somehow, since I especially love that hypnotic quality that both instruments seem to have. And then when I was writing the music that became this album, naturally the influences from Oumou Sangare came through, and from Ali Farka Toure also.
BB: You have mentioned finding inspiration in meditation retreats and have cited Buddhist concepts in your work. How has your spirituality played a part in your work?
CD: The first meditation retreat I went to, I was in the middle of my time at the Thelonious Monk Institute (now the Herbie Hancock Institute) at USC in Los Angeles. When I came back from the retreat, it was like I had a whole new connection with music. So much that I had been missing suddenly was so clear, and so enjoyable. An aliveness, a connection from my inner-most feelings directly to the sound. And it seemed to come out a lot in composing too. I suddenly had a lot more ideas. And after going to a few more retreats, similar things have happened in one way or another each time I’ve gone, and as I’ve tried to keep the practice going in my daily life. I think it’s really just clearing your mind so you can be in the present. And that’s where the music is.
BB: Do you see the jazz genre expanding? Where can it find new audiences?
CD: Yes, absolutely! I know many jazz musicians who are omnivorous, so open to anything they hear regardless of genre. You can hear the various influences in their music, and in turn, it draws in people who primarily like those other genres, but are also open to new things. That can be a gateway for people to all kinds of jazz, old and new.
BB: You have tour dates coming up, what goes into preparing for your shows?
CD: Yes, I have a concert with the trio May 15 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. The pandemic has forced everything to be online, and Firehouse 12 is graciously broadcasting their concerts, doing each one as planned to an online-only audience. So the plan right now is to do this May date that way. Preparing for shows, for me, means running through the music on the instrument, committing it to memory or re-committing it, visualizing playing at the venue, thinking about what I want to say to the audience in between tunes, and also all the more mundane stuff like transport, logistics, etc. Also involves rehearsing with the band. This band knows the music well, and the parts for bass and drums are mostly pretty straightforward, so a quick run-through before the concert will be all we need.
With the concert being online, I’ll need to think even more about what to say, how I want to handle the feeling of no in-person audience, and what audience interaction looks like in this context. I’d imagine my colleagues who have been doing this already might have some tips for me, so will be looking out for those!
BB: How did it feel making the vibraphone lead for this album? What sorts of compositional/arranging challenges did you face to make the ambient-otherworldly tone of the vibraphone stand out?
CD: A lot of the challenges were finding ways to play melodies with one or two mallets, while playing contrapuntal or chordal parts with the other two or three. The limitations that creates actually made it more clear what the melodies could possible be, and what they couldn’t be. Fast or long melody lines would need to be saved for times when I wasn’t playing any other parts, etc. It’s kind of a puzzle. Then there is learning to play what I wrote.. for certain tunes the learning curve was steeper than I anticipated, like for "Find a Way," and also for "Forgive/Embrace." It becomes difficult to be accurate hitting the right melody notes way up high on the vibraphone, when there is a lot else you’re down on the low end. So there was a lot of time practicing, and then more time realizing on gigs that I needed more practice! Another thing that came along with this, is playing the melody louder than the accompaniment. The tone of the vibes changes a bit when you hit the bars harder. So that helps bring out melodies, and kind of creates a second layer to the sound of the instrument.
BB: Bobby Hutcherson has been a huge influence for you, what other vibraphonist inspire you and why?
CD: Yes, Bobby has always been the most influential for me. Milt Jackson and Lionel Hampton were also formative influences, and I still hear their music in my head all the time. I’ve been inspired by Joe Locke, who is a ferocious and energetic player who never misses a note, playing these long and fast lines super fluidly. Also Steve Nelson whose comping is maybe my favorite out of any vibraphonist. Walt Dickerson also was influential in his unique concept of phrasing and open improvisation, and there is an album of Roy Ayers and Fela Kuti called, Music of Many Colors, that I keep coming back to, really love the way Roy plays on that one. I get really inspired seeing what everyone is doing with the instrument. But I also have to let out the secret that I don’t listen too much vibraphone music anymore! Somehow, I’m not as drawn to it as I am to other instruments and sounds. Maybe it’s the curiosity that’s come over time, of trying to adapt things from other instruments onto the vibes. Or maybe I hear it so much when I’m playing, that when I’m listening I’d rather hear something else. That may change and I’ll again find myself listening to vibraphone more frequently.
BB: Lastly we always end by asking what is your favorite jazz album of all time?
CD: Wow, pretty tough to choose just one album… I guess I’d have to say it, even though it’s probably cliche to do so, Kind of Blue. It just never gets old.
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