Photo by Josephine Ochej

Matthias Lupri

interviewed by Josephine Ochej

November 5, 2003

You’ve got to made of tough stuff to make a career in jazz these days, and German-born, Boston-based vibraphonist Matthias Lupri - who grew up in Alberta and Kansas - has gathered quite a variety of musical influences and experiences along his path to fuel his high-energy modern jazz. Advancing his Tuesday, November 18 (2003) Matthias Lupri Group gig at The Cellar (with guest trumpeter Cuong Vu), Lupri talks about life before jazz (hint: it included the words country and blues); influences from Gary Burton to Murray Adaskin; and becoming aware how small the jazz market is, then using the power of positive dreaming to do it anyway.

You started your musical career as a drummer playing rock, blues and country music and then you practically stumbled onto the vibraphone: describe your evolution into becoming a jazz vibraphonist?

I really started wanting to learn how to compose my own music, that’s how it all began for me. After spending much time doing recording sessions on drums in rock bands and such, and always playing other peoples’ music, I wanted to contribute my own tunes. I needed to understand song structure, harmony, theory etc., which I was not learning by playing the drums.

So I enrolled in the Mount Royal College jazz program in Calgary and spent a number of years really trying to learn the basics. It was rough – I couldn’t even find a C note on the piano when I started. But the desire was there and I knew it, so I stuck with it. I enrolled as a drummer but started learning vibes and piano from scratch. I was introduced to Gary Burton albums, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, some classical music, along with lots of other jazz greats. It was my first introduction to jazz, so I really started late with the whole thing.

After I graduated the program I went out on the road again playing double bass type drums in hard rock bands again for about five years. I wrote a bit on the road with a small piano, but eventually I started bringing my vibes with me in the band bus. Rolling them into the hotel rooms and practicing jazz during the day, but rockin’ out at night on the drums. The guys in the band couldn’t make sense of what I was doing! After a while I realized my life on the road in rock bands wasn’t really fulfilling my musical needs any more, so I enrolled at Berklee College in Boston to chase this jazz dream. Gary Burton taught there and I was really interested in studying with him. It became a reality.

The vibraphone is an unusual instrument that people don’t come across very often (even in jazz, never mind the greater musical world!) and, as such, it inspires much curiosity: what was it about the vibes that drew you in?

Well, after hearing the Gary Burton on the album “Times Square” (with Roy Haynes, Steve Swallow and Tiger Okashi), I knew there was a very special way to play the instrument that I never heard many other vibists play.  Gary approached the instrument with four mallets and played it like a piano. Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson and the majority of players before him approached the instrument with two mallets and played more horn-type lines. The piano approach was a very cool modern approach and it totally turned my head around on the sound of the instrument. Then players like Mike Maineiri really did some hip stuff, too.

There are a million sax players around the world vying for attention: what are the advantages and, perhaps, disadvantages to being one of a small number of musicians playing a comparatively obscure instrument?

Well, I guess maybe it’s a bit easier to stand out, because there are fewer players, but at the same token, the interest from the public, festivals, record companies, etc., is not as high up there either, proportionally. 

It seems a lot of vibraphonists come to the instrument via the piano. Describe your approach to the vibes coming from a background in percussion?

It’s almost like a drummer’s piano. When you come from being a drummer, you have a lot of the sticking concepts already down, but need to just learn harmony, etc. When you come from being a pianist, you have a lot of the harmony already down, but not the sticking coordination. Pros and cons to both. I also approach it very physically like I did the drums, and hit quite hard. Coming from a rock, blues and country background, I have roots that lie elsewhere other than jazz, and I think it comes through and helps establish my own sound to some degree.

You’re on the faculty at Berklee in the percussion department – tell me about your experiences as an educator and how that influences your own music? 

Well, I really manage more than I teach at Berklee, but I do occasional lessons, shows or a class. But being around this really fertile environment all the time really helps inspire the creative mind and keeps me in the loop of what the the younger generation is doing. I also see and hear so much jazz and other music here that it’s a stimulus overload most of the time, actually.

Everyone is a product of the influences surrounding them throughout life and musicians are certainly no exception: how would you describe your current musical personality to someone who could not hear?

Hmmmm – if you couldn’t hear…maybe modern, somewhat abstract, warm, yet sometimes icy . . . maybe like a Picasso meets Ansel Adams meets Herman Hesse (if I may say that).

Also, describe where you see your music heading from here? 

Maybe even a lot more modern electric, colorfully abstract, super warm, yet sometimes extremely icy, rounder yet more angular at the same time…and of course always trying to be true to myself and dreams?  At least that’s where I’m trying to go.

Gary Burton. Describe your initial discovery of his music, and your subsequent relationship with the great vibraphonist, including his influence on your music/playing? What’s the most important thing you learned from your connection with Burton?

Well, as mentioned before, the “Times Square” album really turned my head around on wanting to play vibes more than drums. I really started checking out everything he did and when I got to Boston, I was checking out his group all the time. Sometimes catching his shows at the Regatta Bar four nights in a row, then going to NYC and seeing it again opposite Scofield at the Blue Note. Constant repetition really helped establish what was going on for me, and the whole band interaction etc., with jazz and the vibes.

When I studied with him it was a very musical lesson too, more than technical. He would often discuss how the tune relates to the title, to your own self-being, to the listener, etc., and how to get that across.

I guess the most important thing I learned from this connection was to really go for what you believe in and never give up. There are some many obstacles, but the beauty of music really always wins.

I’d have to mention also that there was this well-known Canadian classical composer by the name of Murray Adaskin (who recently passed on) who was friends with my parents and also lived in BC later in life. He was this very kind man who came over for dinner one night and wanted to hear me play something on the vibes. I could hardly play much at that point, but had a few nice things going on. After I played he said he was now going to write something for the vibes in his classical music settings – and a year later I received tape with a classical orchestra playing this new music he had written, with these cool vibe parts. But he told me very sincerely to never give up and to follow my musical dreams – and that, too, really helped me stick it out, because it can be a long haul. He was so into music ‘til the end – very inspiring.

When you have a mentor as gifted, well known and influential as Burton, was it difficult finding your own sound or voice?

Yes, definitely. It’s still a struggle sometimes - when you think you feel you have something, and then you realize it’s not really your own true voice.  But that feeling is diminishing all the time. I think it’s quite a common thing with lots of artists, of all types.

From a business perspective, and since you’ve lived several genres of music, describe life as a rock, etc. musician vs. jazz musician?

Well, after I graduated college the first time, I went immediately out on the road playing full time hard rock drums and never gave much thought to how that happened. When I graduated Berklee I thought I would do the same all over again but playing jazz vibes as my own leader. Only then I realized the difference in business of the genres, and how less popular jazz was. It never dawned on me that that would become an issue – I was only thinking about music, not business. But hey, it’s coming along slowly but surely. 

We have a nice tour going on right now up and down the west coast USA and Canada, and have been touring Jazz Festivals throughout North America quite regularly over the past few years.

Do you have a regular group that you play with in your hometown of Boston?

Well, yes and no. Players here are very transient, always going to NYC after Berklee. So, I have players for a while in the group and then they move. So, I keep connections with them and play in NYC, too. But the whole business is rough, so players are always trying to juggle way too many different gigs, so as a leader I’m often forced to use different players when the schedules overlap.

It’s a shame you’re not bringing the group you recorded your latest disc “Same Time Twice” (Kurt Rosenwinkel/guitar; Mark Turner/saxes; Reuben Rogers/bass; Gregory Hutchinson/drums), but I guess that’s part of both the benefits and drawbacks of jazz: You’re able to record and play with a variety of people, but you don’t often have the opportunity to do this over a period of time to really solidify and deepen musical relationships. What are your thoughts on this aspect of jazz?

It’s really fun to do both. It’s great to solidify a working group that has great interaction and interesting musical conversations, but it can sometimes get old, too -sometimes you want some new conversation from someone else. It adds a whole new view and perspective. No band lasts forever also, but the recordings hang around a lot longer. So, play with people you want to play with when you can, and when you don’t feel like it anymore, don’t. It all seems to work out if you try. Also, you find quite often that players you stopped playing with come around in a cycle every five years or so, again, and it’s really fresh.

You’re bringing guitarist Nate Radley and bassist Thomson Kneeland, who were with you for your extremely lively 2002 Vancouver Int’l Jazz Festival appearance. Also joining you on stage will be drummer Jordan Perlson and trumpeter Cuong Vu, who plays with Pat Metheny and put on a memorable show at the Vancouver Jazz Fest four or five years ago as part of the electronic-fuelled young jazz outfit Saft/Vu. Describe why you chose these musicians and what each of them brings to your music?

Thomson and Nate are two players who are in NYC, and have been with my group for a number of years now. We all have a good connection, and they have really helped influence my playing. I’ve learned a lot from them and still always do. They are great with the modern sounds, electronics, and odd time rhythms I’m looking for. Jordan is a young kid who just came up to me and said I want to play in your band. Eventually one day an opening happened, and I was able to try him out with the group. He’s really a pleasure to play with and helps get the band sound I’m looking for too. I heard Cuong Vu under recommendation from a friend. When he came out with the “Bound” CD, I picked it up and really got into it years ago. Then when he joined Metheny’s group I really enjoyed hearing him again and caught him live for the first time. His use of tones and harmonic freedom really compliments my original music, especially with the electronics. I have been getting into electronics once again more recently too, and it really meshes well with his.

Anything else you want to add?

Thanks for having me here, and come on out to the show – we’ll be playing some music from the last few CD’s plus some brand new music, too.

More jazzie . . .

Related links:

Matthias Lupri web site

The Matthias Lupri Group’s most recent release is “Same Time Twice” on Summit Records.

Murray Adaskin