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Arthur Lipner: Breaking the Mallet Barrier
By Mark Ford

JAZZ MALLET PLAYER ARTHUR Lipner must be doing something right. He has recently released two new recordings, performed at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City to great reviews, and also completed a European tour. Lipner is quickly earning widespread recognition not only as a vibist, but also as a composer and educator. His second band project, entitled The Magic Continues..., which features the talents of such players as Bob Mintzer on sax and drummer Joel Rosenblatt, was reviewed by Jazz Times as “a glowing collection that connects directly with listener’s bodies, souls and brains....” His duo album, Liquide Stones, with guitarist Jack DeSalvo, captures the same momentum. He has also authored Solo Jazz Vibraphone Etudes, a popular vibraphone text published by Ludwig Publishing.

If these accomplishments are any indication, Arthur Lipner is on a fast track to becoming
a major voice in jazz. I had a chance to talk with him at PASIC ’94 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Here are the results:


Mark Ford: How do you think a vibraphonist leading a band is perceived by the public?

Arthur Lipner: That’s a good question. As far as perception goes we are dealing with two camps. One is the percussion commu-nity: the people that are here at PASIC; the people that are hip to what the instruments are—that a vibraphone is a vibraphone. The other camp is the jazz market in radio and retail. My interest is to reach as many people as possible with my music and the instruments. I remember reading an interview with Friedman and Samuels when they were on the cover of Down Beat many years ago. It was probably in 1974 or ’75. Samuels said, “We’re interested in getting the instruments out of the closet.” I don’t think we’ve made any more progress on that in the past twenty years. In fact, maybe it’s gone down hill. Regarding the perception of the instrument, the Percussive Arts people are a subset
of the general population, but I’m trying to bring my music and instruments into the mainstream music scene, which is primarily saxophone, guitar and keyboards.

I did a radio and retail tour to support The Magic Continues... It’s difficult to go into a radio station where DJs love the music and they have all my albums, but they don’t know what a marimba is. It’s really a challenge. There are no other instruments in the contemporary jazz mainstream that people don’t know the names of. This situation just doesn’t exist. If you see Kenny G playing a saxophone, you know what it is. You can turn on MTV or VH-1 and watch for 3-million hours and you’re never going to see a mallet player. I find that promoters and radio people are cautious because they don’t know what the instruments are and they don’t know what they sound like. When you listen to The Magic Continues... I think you hear a current contemporary jazz sound, which is a mix of my instruments with the others. There just are not that many people out there doing what I’m doing. So when I do a record it becomes an event. When Dave and Dave [Friedman and Samuels] put a new album out, it’s an event. I think there are about ten jazz mallet players in the U.S. and another ten in Europe. That allows for great exposure—much-needed exposure. I guess at times I’m in the role of educating the public.

Ford: How would you compare your last two recordings—the guitar duo versus the band setting?

Lipner: I use the duo as one area of my playing and the band project as the other. In the duo I play vibes and marimba, and Jack DeSalvo plays acoustic and electric guitar. I don’t mean to put things in little boxes, but I channel my deep-down, creative, “no boundaries” type of music to that instrumentation. In the band it’s a different type of energy because we’re dealing with more conventional instrumentation. It’s a bigger sound with almost a dance groove situation and complex arrangements. This winter we’re going to play a lot with the band and try to tweak the live sound to where we are really getting a distinctive personality. I never thought much about the differences between vibes and marimba with the
band until I listened to this last record and compared it to my first band project, In Any Language. People tell me that The Magic Continues... has a lot more of the “sound” and vitality of the mallet instruments. The vibes and marimba are very different instruments acoustically, even though they are both mallet-percussion instruments. It’s a challenge to create material that has a consistent harmonic and rhythmic density for that instrumentation because the instruments are so different. I’ve been working a lot with the calypso/soca jazz feel, and the marimba sounds great in there. The vibes’ metallic sound resembles a pan (steel drum) but it doesn’t have the frequency depth of the low end of the marimba. So it has to occupy a different place in the groove, and that’s something we want to take “back to the lab” over the winter.

Ford: What was your musical background?

Lipner: I started studying piano when I was six years old. When I was thirteen I saw a vibraphone at someone’s house and I really liked the way it looked. I was at a point where I was losing interest in classical material. I didn’t understand the point in practicing something 3,000 times to get it perfect. So jazz appealed to me because of the openness of it.

Ford: So you had no percussion experience prior to this?
Lipner: None. I had a bar mitzvah at age thirteen and was sitting on some extra money. My parents said that I could do whatever I wanted to with a certain percent of it, so we bought a xylo-marimba. I had that for six or eight months and then got a vibraphone. My first teacher was Dave Friedman. My father had called Gary Burton at Berklee because that’s the way my father is: “If the kid needs a vibraphone teacher let’s call Gary Burton.” Gary was not available but we found Dave through some channels. Friedman told me to buy an M-55 and some mallets if I was going to play vibes. So that’s what I bought and I still have it.

Ford: How do your beginnings with the vibraphone differ from most percussion students in the ’90s?

Lipner: They’re really different! When I first saw the vibraphone I didn’t know what a paradiddle was. I didn’t know what a doublestroke roll was. But I did know a handful of jazz standards in all keys using Roman numerals. I was completely fluent in all modes of the major scale, several minor modes, blues scales, chords, chord voicings and advanced harmonic concepts. The only problem I had was dealing with only four mallets instead of ten fingers, and the limited range of the vibraphone. Students that I run into at clinics here, as well as in Europe, are coming to the vibraphone from drumset—or at least not from a harmonic background that could be applied to the vibes. Although these students may have a high musical ability and may be able to express that through drums, their ability on mallets is much lower. This is probably typical of what was going on in my time when I was coming up. I was an unusual case. I still am, I think. [laughs]

Ford: One of the things that impresses me is the way you connect with young musicians. You have done clinics throughout the states as well as in Europe; what trends do you see in upcoming vibraphonists?

Lipner: When I see students who are really into the instrument, there’s a kind of soul thing going on. Of all the instruments in the world and of all the things that people can do, here’s a kid, or adult, that’s so into the vibraphone that they are standing there with mallets asking me a question. I was in Poland for the seventh International Polish Percussion Festival in April 1994. I go all the way over there, two days of flights, nobody’s speaking English, and there’s this kid asking me through an interpreter how to hold mallets. It really made me identify with him. When I was in school there were a lot of “unknowns” about performing and the business world that we were not going to find out until we got out of school. So these clinics help give students insight into that world.

Ford: Along those lines, what are some important aspects about the music business world that upcoming jazz mallet players need to keep in mind when they are coming out of school?

Lipner: Rule number one, there’s always room at the top. If you have the ability, desire, discipline and can spend the time it takes, you have to hope that you will achieve something that you will be happy with. Rule number two, don’t forget about the business situation you will be in when you get out of school. Make sure you understand the demands that will be on you as far as running your own business. When you are a chemical engineer major, you get out of school and go to work for DuPont. If you are on a teaching track you become a teacher. But when you are a freelance musician, or even if you are going for a symphony gig while teaching some during the day, you can’t believe how competitive it is on the
business level. You need to keep up on correspondence and marketing techniques for yourself. These demands come second only to being able to practice. Rule number three is not to be afraid to experiment with new things and explore new avenues, because music is going to continue for hundreds and thousands of years after we’re long gone. I think a lot about what kind of music people will be playing in, say, two hundred years. How will people be playing the marimba then? There will be new things. Those new things and new ideas and new technologies are what keep us all moving and looking towards the future. On a very simple level, some of the more interesting ways a few of my tunes have developed have been through mistakes. For example, I’ll hit an adjacent note that represents an upper neighbor versus a lower neighbor. I kind of like the shape of that melody so I go with it. This will take the shape of the line to a different place and maybe it resolves a different way. Those types of things are important.

Ford: What is in the future for Arthur Lipner?

Lipner: The most important thing for me right now is to continue recording and refining my sound. I’ve really noticed in the last few years since I’ve been putting the records out that I’m getting more exposure around the world as a player, writer and educator. So I just have to figure that years down the line I’ll be seeing more progress that way. Things happen because of a natural series of events. So, hopefully, everything that I’m doing will add up to something bigger and better.

Percussive Notes V33 N5 October 1995
Reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society, Inc., 701 NW Ferris, Lawton, OK 73507-5442; E-mail: percarts@pas.org; Web: www.pas.org