Thoroughly Good Q&A: Lewis Wright – vibraphonist, composer and drummer

Vibraphonist Lewis Wright’s debut album on Signum Classics features lifelong friend Kit Downes on piano collaborating on a short set of ravishing improvisations. The album is released on Friday 6 April. I spoke to Lewis a few weeks ago on the phone. An extract of that conversation is included below. 

Is the vibraphone a difficult instrument to master? I’ve always been terrified by the sight of it.

I guess it is in as much as a piano is. I suppose the vibraphone is less common and therefore looks a bit unknown and exotic. But really, it’s a hitty thing with some notes and a pedal. That’s all it is.

When did you first see a vibraphone?

Fairly young. I was 8. My father is a musician, producer and a drummer. We had all sorts of percussion around the house. I grew up on a diet of all sorts of different music. He used to do these percussison workshops. I played the drums from 3 years old. I remember going to this one workshop and seeing this thing and hearing it and just immediately having a connection with it.

What was the thing that you connected with?

Mostly the sound. Actually, maybe a combination of the sound and the look. You know, it was quite a bling thing. All gold. It stood out from all of the other wooden instruments around it. My Dad very cleverly made the observation that this wasn’t the kind of thing one enters into lightly as a parent. So he said, let’s start you on some piano lessons and then if you’re still up for it we’ll revisit the vibraphone. He had to know that I was committed. After a year or two, I think he realised that I was still really keen on it.

It sounds like you had music all around you

Definitely all around me at home. In terms of where we lived, not so much – I was brought up in rural Norfolk. Not many playing opportunities or artists passing through rural Norfolk. Occasionally, we’d head to London for something. Live music was hard to come by. Most of it was recordings and videos. Dad had a lot of VHS cassettes around. I’d sit and watch these things. That’s where I gleaned lots of information, more than actually seeing it live. There was the odd thing that came through Norwich – jazz or classical stuff that we’d go and see. But my experience was primarily listening to records. But of course, being in the countryside meant that we had the space to play. I’ve learned to appreciate the fact that in the countryside I could make as much noise as possible.

What are you doing out in the US at the moment?

I’m doing a load of touring with Julian Bliss. He’s also signed to Signum Records. He’s predominantly known in the classical world as a soloist – but he’s really interested in jazz. So for about six or seven years now he’s been working on this project of Swing/40s and 50s/Benny Goodman inspired music. We’ve touring the States for a couple of weeks. I’ve been travelling around the States on a musical trip too. I’ve just spent 3 weeks in New Orleans, soaking up the culture and enjoying Mardi Gras. There’s so much live music there – managed to see a few people there who have really inspired me – George Porter Junior, Jonny Vidacovich.

The character of the vibes – there are some characteristics about the sound that elicit an emotional response. Can you describe what that is? What’s going on there?

I agree. In terms of expressing yourself and improvising and making music that certainly has roots in jazz and improvisation, the vibraphone is really well suited because its incredibly expressive – the pedal, the tremolo. It’s a machine. There are loads of different tools and parameters you can work with. There’s something about the tone of the instrument which is pure and crystalline. That coupled with the various ways of expressing yourself – using different mallets, the pedal, and the motor.

On the recording we were able to capture the sound of the vibraphone in a really authentic way.

Whenever I hear the vibraphone I don’t get the sense that the sound of the vibes hasn’t dated in the way that say the saxophone has. Why do you think that is?

I suspect its because the vibes haven’t been over-used. The vibraphone has always been a very niche thing. I think that’s probably helped. It’s never been a prominent voice in music like the saxophone for example. You’ve really got to have an individual voice when you’re playing the saxophone. Why hasn’t the vibraphone suffered that fate? I think a number of musicians have moved it on in terms of playing. The instrument itself is less than 100 years old too – I think that’s important. The speed of the motor, the ability to play more notes, more stridently has moved on the instrument’s appreciation.  Listen to Lionel Hampton and then listen to the music now, it’s moved on. But also, I suspect the instrument hasn’t been ‘killed’ like some other instruments have.

How do you work and Kit work together?

Kit and I have known each other for a long time. He lived in the next village from me. We met each other at Norwich Students Jazz Orchestra. We met there. I wrote a lot of music for both of us to play. We had a concert in 2010. We did this duo co ncert. It was obvious from the get-go that something worked between us.

We both of us went away did other things, but when I got to the stage where I wanted to put some of my own work out there, Kit was the obvious person to work with. I wrote the music but I wrote it for him, knowing how he plays and knowing how we play together, and understanding the shared language we have. In that respect it was quite easy to write a lot of this music because of that.

In some of the compositions I wanted to blur the lines between what is written and what isn’t. I wanted to build in some of the language we share already in the music. In that way some of the improvisations appear seamless.

Kit is a phenomenal musician. I didn’t want to write everything down on the page. That’s something you learn very quickly when you’re working on jazz and improvisation. It’s about trust. You have to trust that the other people you’re working with will be able to come up with the material. In this way you don’t want to stifle creative input. It’s about knowing when you don’t need to write down the material, but also knowing exactly you need to provide in order to give the musicians everything they need to come up with material.

‘Duets’ featuring Lewis Wright and Kit Downes is available for pre-order now on Amazon and released on Friday 6 April. Both appear at Pizza Express Live in Soho on Monday 9 April. There are also dates in Norfolk, Sussex, and Oxfordshire.

Read a Thoroughly Good Album review of the album. 

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