In the recently released documentary film Talking Sticks: A Musical Journey, world-renowned vibraphone and marimba player Arthur Lipner travels the globe, exploring the roots and evolution of melodic percussion instruments. His journey takes him to places such as Mexico, where he meets a man who builds marimbas from wood; and Brazil, where he speaks with one who crafts them from glass. In Norway, Lipner performs on a xylophone made of ice. His conclusion about melodic percussion after years of travel and exploration, and decades of performing on those instruments himself, may be obvious. But it's still compelling.
"We're all trying to find ways to express ourselves," Lipner says of the people who make and perform on the mallet instruments he's spent a lifetime loving and perfecting.
Lipner is widely regarded as one of the world's finest jazz vibraphone and marimba players and educators. Over a career spanning some three decades, he has performed in every corner of the globe, both solo and with jazz greats, from the up-and-coming Gretchen Parlato to Dave Brubeck. He's released more than 75 compositions and recorded tracks for radio, television and film. That's in addition to his solo records, the most recent of which, Brasilian Vibes, was nominated Album of the Year at the Brazilian Press Awards in 2010.
In advance of Lipner's performance at the third annual Hartland JazzFest this weekend, Seven Days spoke with him by phone.
(Special thanks to local marimba player Jane Boxall for her input and advice on questions.)
SEVEN DAYS: Where did the idea for the documentary [directed by Flavia Fontes and Marcelo Pontes] originate?
ARTHUR LIPNER: Someone approached me years ago who was a filmmaker and said, "These instruments you play, vibes and marimba, are pretty unusual. Do you mind if I do some shooting?" And it morphed over the years, over storyline concepts and different continents.
SD: Tell me about the ice xylophone. That sounds fascinating.
AL: It was. That was done in Norway. Musically, working with ice involves more challenges than I've ever had, because I had to play an instrument I'd never actually seen or heard before. But making music from water has deep connections with the environment and history, and the concept of us all being one people on this planet. Because this water has been around for so many thousands of years.
SD: Does the pitch of the instrument change as it melts?
AL: It does! And that deepens the connection to the environment, because you're not only playing the water; you're playing the elements as they ascend to water. Different types of water make different types of sounds. If there are air bubbles in the ice, they conduct the sound differently. And as the temperature fluctuated, the sound of the instrument changed. Plus, it was about 20 below and I performed without gloves. It was kinda cold.
SD: Yikes. You've been all over the world talking to percussionists about their craft. Did any consistent themes emerge from those travels?
AL: The overriding similarity is something [Hartland JazzFest organizer] Peter Concilio says in the trailer for the film, and that's that we're all seeking fulfillment; we're all looking for wholeness. We all have our own ways and our own means and tools to try and be fulfilled in life. And different people go about that in varying ways. More specifically, I visited a guy in Norway a few weeks ago who is making marimbas out of stone. And that kind of completed the circle for me. I've seen glass marimbas in Brazil. I've seen them made from stone, ice, wood. It goes back to fulfillment. We're all trying to find ways to express ourselves. And those of us who hit keyboard instruments, that's our way.
SD: How did you come to play those kinds of instruments?
AL: I was a classical pianist when I was young, kind of a prodigy. And when I was 12, I saw a vibraphone at someone's house, and I immediately fell in love with it and started losing interest in piano. I loved that playing mallet instruments involved having four long fingers instead of 10 short ones. I was captured by the sound and experience of playing those instruments, the way an instrument can just grab you. It's a little inexplicable.
SD: Do you think it had something to do with the kinds of music you could explore on vibes, versus the rigidity of classical piano?
AL: I do. The repertoire I play on mallet instruments always tends to connect to the cultures of the instruments. I'm not really known as a bebop player. On my solo albums, I've never recorded any swing music. The spirit of improvisation in those styles is part of my roots. But I've always gravitated toward African music, Latin American and Caribbean music. I connect more with the cultural aspects of instruments.
SD: Why has the vibraphone found such a home in jazz music when the marimba seemingly hasn't?
AL: Well, the vibraphone was part of the evolution of jazz. It was created in the late 1920s, and it followed the history of jazz right through the fusion era of Steps Ahead and Spyro Gyra. The marimba, on the other hand, was never really part of jazz. Its uses have always been on the edge. Honestly, it's too big. It's hard to move around. It's not loud. That's definitely a factor. You can't sit in at a club with a marimba the way you can with, say, a flute.
SD: How do you see the future of keyboard-based percussion?
AL: I think mallet players need to find new musical settings for the instruments. I think that's where the future is. Gary Burton has done that with Brazilian music and, when he was a young man, with tango music with Ástor Piazzolla. I've done that in my own work. My new album will have music from Iceland and Turkey on it. So I think, in terms of new ground and new sounds for the instruments, that's where it's going to be.