November 23, 2010 § Leave a comment
Vibraphonist Tom Beckham has been called “a lyrical player with a flair for writing distinctive, memorable tunes” by jazz.com and “a fine composer” by Baltimore Magazine. “His exclamatory way with the mallets brings lots of fireworks to the instrument’s naturally mellow personality” Jim Macnie, Village Voice. We spoke with him via phone about tonight’s show and he indulged our continuing fascination with performance and perception…
Tell us a little about your background in the City and with the Cafe.
Well I’ve been in NYC since 1994, and playing Cornelia for almost as long, through the tenure of several music curators. I’ve appeared as a leader and a sideman, with my own groups as well as the projects of others. This Tuesday is my first chance to start working with [music curator] Tom Chang, who I think has been really positively affecting people in the community through his booking policies there and his proactivity. We’ve got a lot of thanks to give for that; we also have a lot of thanks to the folks who actually come to the shows. Those two I imagine go hand in hand, of course.
How long have you been playing with this configuration of folks you’ll be appearing with?
I’ve made three records as a leader. The most recent one features three of the four other musicians that I’ll be working with Tuesday: Saxophonist Chris Cheek, who just finished up with Paul Motian at the Vanguard last week, pianist Henry Hay, with whom I’ve recorded two records, and also Matt Closey. Drummer Greg Richie is also no stranger to Cornelia Street as an active drummer on the scene, and has his own group called The Story with whom I think he’s out of the country touring right now. The CD we recorded is called Rebound and it was released at the end of 2008, and I’ve continued to write music for that ensemble. There’s an album I’ve recorded called Sensor Songs, and we’ll be playing music from that as well.
What are some of the specific challenges and opportunities for composing and arranging around and for the vibraphone?
Well the things I enjoy about it are the sound of the instrument and the way that these particular musicians interact with and interpret my music. In general I try to program a night to be diverse enough for myself to show people the different aspects of my musical personality, so I spend a lot of time thinking about where and how songs will be played throughout the night.
Really the challenge is to make the music sound as personal and true to myself as I can and to deliver for people the composition I’ve written as accurately and articulately as when I conceived it. As a vibraphonist I’ve grown up in the shadow of folks like Gary Burton, whom I studied with, and Bobby Hutcherson and Mill Jackson. These people have had a huge impact on the instrument, and they continue to. So it can be a real challenge just to work on your own voice and make sure you’re challenging yourself every chance you can.
Can you sense feedback from the audience from your vantage point on the stage?
I think the feeling of feedback is enhanced by the intimate size and layout of the club, for sure. But it’s also about who’s there and what kinds of things you’re doing as a musician to elicit their responses. It used to be audiences only applauded after a solo if it was a good solo–now it’s become commonplace to applaud no matter what. But I mean, applause aside, if you’re playing and there’s no audience there, it’s kind of like ‘Well what’s the point of playing?’ Conversely, if you’re a musician playing to a full house but you’re ignoring the audience, you’re also missing the point too, so I think it goes both ways. As a bandleader, you really should be thinking about that, I think, although I’m sure a lot of people see differently about it.
Do you tend to feel when a show has gone well?
Well I mean, the first thing is if the band doesn’t make a train wreck, well then that’s an indication that the show has gone well. The second thing is if people actually come to the gig, and then if there’s any money to actually pay the band at the end of the night. Those three things are actually very significant [laughs]. Other than that, I tell ya, I can’t accurately give you an example of what it is that’s actually happening that would make someone feel like it’s going well. I’ve played gigs where I’ve felt completely terrible about everything that I’ve done, and then’ve had people come up to me after and say “Man that was such a great solo” or “wow, such ao great gig,” and I’m just shaking my head like ‘How can that be? I feel like I’m doing terrible and you think this is great.’ And I’ve had this happen in the opposite situation, where I’ve thought I was playing really well and’ve gotten no feedback from anyone. I think at the end of the day it’s a personal goal that you just sort of go for and that’s it. The Musician Quest, you know, It’s just so variable and personal.
Tom Beckham appears tonight at 830pm with Chris Cheek on saxophones, Henry Hey on piano; Matt Clohesy on bass; and Greg Ritchie on drums. http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com or 212/989-9319 for reservations.