Nine years after graduating from Wesleyan University, 30-year-old vibraphonist Chris Dingman has become one of jazz's young leading lights.
He's studied and played extensively with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. He's a critically acclaimed sideman who has turned heads for his work with saxophonist Steve Lehman, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and percussionist Harris Eisenstadt. His music has taken him to far-flung locales, including Mumbai and Vietnam, and it brought him to Brooklyn, N.Y., his home since 2007.
When Dingman arrived at Wesleyan in 1998, however, he wasn't even a vibes player.
“I was actually not sure when I entered what I would do with myself,” Dingman says. “That's why I went somewhere where there were so many options.”
At Wesleyan, Dingman double-majored in music and social science, studied drumming with Pheeroan AkLaff and hung out with vibraphonist and composer Jay Hoggard, who, Dingman says, steered him toward the vibraphone, an instrument similar to the xylophone and marimba, but with aluminum instead of wooden bars. It's equipped with a resonator tube for each bar and a motorized valve, giving the instrument its signature mellow, vibrating sound.
This month, Dingman will celebrate another career milestone when he releases Waking Dreams, his first CD as a bandleader, on his own label, Between Worlds Music. On Saturday, Dingman's sextet will perform the semi-autobiographical suite at the Jazz Gallery, a nonprofit music haunt in NYC's West Village on Hudson Street between Dominick and Spring Streets. Four of the five musicians from the recording — Akinmusire, pianist Fabian Almazan, drummer Justin Brown and saxophonist Loren Stillman — will be there, along with bassist Chris Tordini, who steps in for Joe Sanders. (Woodwind players Erica von Kleist and Mark Small and guitarist Ryan Ferreira also contributed to the recording.)
The move from drummer and budding pianist to vibes-man is, in many ways, understandable, and certainly not without precedent. Once played in a linear, two-mallet style, modern vibes are usually played with four mallets, allowing players to approximate chordal, pianistic vamps and leads. Lionel Hampton, who popularized the vibraphone on recordings with Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and his own bands, was once a drummer, stumbling onto the vibraphone at NBC Radio studios, where he was asked to play the famous three-note motif.
Waking Dreams, in its final form, comes nearly a decade after Dingman's graduation from Middletown, but it's strongly linked to his Wesleyan days. “Vijayanagara,” the suite's second piece, was inspired by Dingman's visit on his India study group to the ruined city. Using mallets, soft piano chords and bowed bass to create lush textures rife with Mixolydian trumpet and sax motifs and descending glissandos, it segues the four-note thumping bass, electric piano riffs and eventual contrapuntal craziness of “Jet Lag.” As a bandleader, Dingman's as laid back as his instrument; his first extended solo arrives five minutes into “Jet Lag” and doesn't hang around very long before the imitative passages crowd him out. A later, softer tune, “Indian Hill,” is about the cemetery in Middletown that abuts the Wesleyan campus.
Composing the suite, Dingman says, was a long process, even though the recording was done in a single day, with a few overdubs added later. Most of the music was given to the players in a lead-sheet format, although a few of the compositions are more intricate, involving contrapuntal passages where each player was given a different part. Dingman says he spent most of his time thinking about how to sequence the suite. “Special care was put into making this album an experience,” Dingman writes on the back of the CD. “For best results, listen from beginning to end.”
“Radiohead was a big influence in that regard,” he says, “especially Kid A and In Rainbows. You can listen to that and you don't want to take a piece out of context. You want to listen to the whole thing and kinda let it flow over you.”
Dingman relishes his role as bandleader but still enjoys being a sideman. “There's a lot more responsibility with playing your own music,” says Dingman. “You really do have to lead a band with what you play, not just what you say. You have to have a clear vision of what you want people to sound like. It's more work. It can be more stressful, but it's also more rewarding. But it can be a lot more fun to work on somebody else's music, to help make their vision come to life. It might not be as personal, but it's just a different type of reward.”
A lot of the work, Dingman believes, has to do with picking the right people and collaborating with musicians he knows and trusts. “You're already hearing what they play when you ask them to participate,” he says. “That's the case with a lot of people on the record. I always try to start in the most general way possible, not really telling people what to do. What they will do and bring is a lot more special. In order to get the group to have a cohesive sound, everyone has to be comfortable adding their own voice. So I have to foster that.”
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter at @MikeHamad.
Chris Dingman's first solo release, 'Waking Dreams,' has strong ties to his Middletown days
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