Friday, May 8, 2020

"Embrace" : A Vital Breath of Music from Chris Dingman and his Trio

Chris Dingman Embrace

The imaginative, vibraphonist Chris Dingman released his latest creation, Embrace, on March 6, 2020. This nine-composition, musically vibrant album by Dingman and his simpatico trio of bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tim Keiper veritably debuted as the eye of the hurricane known as world pandemic virus Covid-19 struck hard in the musician’s residing metropolitan New York City area. In these times of stress, uncertainty, and fear, it is precisely the reinvigorating qualities of sensitively rendered, emotionally honest and expertly executed music like Dingman’s that in fifty-four minutes can revive your tranquility and elevate your spirits. It is like a beautiful, vital breath of inspiration in these trying times.

I first heard Dingman’s work back in 2015 when he gathered a potent sextet and released his brilliant, five-part suite, The Subliminal and the Sublime. The album was perceptibly created to musically capture the elegance and splendor of nature and its wonders. Dingman musically admired the sublime majesty of the great Redwoods to the gentle undulations of a flowing stream, marveled at the subliminal shifts like the barely perceptible motion of Tectonic plates, to the whirling galaxy of light created by swarming fireflies at night in the woods. The album caught my attention, and I called it an “aural feast” that should be savored and named it as one of 2015’s best of jazz in the Huffington Post.

As with the previous offering, The Subliminal and the Sublime, Dingman's latest, Embrace, was made possible by a grant by the Inner Arts Initiative, part of the Chamber Music of America. It is so vital that critical groups like this still do their part to support promising and creative musicians and allow them the means to produce worthwhile work.

Embrace is a composition oriented album. Dingman's pared-down group created its own challenge. The limited tonal palette of the vibraphone as the sole lead instrument in the trio necessitated his instrument's voice becoming more prominent, carrying the melodies, and simultaneously, at times, offering rhythmic support. His astute band members provided a dynamic interaction, using Oh’s full sounding bass and Keiper’s airy drum work to drive the music and serve as complementary textures to Dingman's reverberating, tubular voice. The trio works in sync marvelously, well-matched and keen to each other's interactions and to Dingman's compositions.

Dingman acknowledges his playing of the vibes to be stylistically most influenced by the late vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Other exposures when he studied at Wesleyan included Avant-garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton and fellow vibraphonist Jay Hoggard. The strong melodic, sometimes ethereal work that Dingman produces has incorporated elements of technique that follow the style of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s more melodic and atmospheric work. Over the past ten years, Dingman’s musical interests have been strongly influenced by the West African music of Mande, Wassoulou, and the desert of Mali areas.

In this album, the composition “Ali” is a gorgeous song dedicated to the hypnotic grooves of Ali Farka Toure, the late Malian singer and blues/folk guitarist. The song starts out with Dingman playing a gentle, effervescent ostinato pattern that has floating, captivating pace and intriguing emotional attraction before accented by skillful percussive patterning by Keiper and a subtly anchoring bass line by Oh.

“Inner Child” has a buoyant, playful sound that the musician offers as a healing song that embraces parts of himself that he often ignores. Bassist Linda May Han Oh, an in-demand bassist who tours with Pat Metheny's group, offers a potent, beautifully minimalist solo that compliments the vibraphonist’s ebulliently featured chiming lines as Keiper delicately splashes his cymbals.

“Forgive/Embrace” is a composition based on a kora-inspired line that came from Dingman’s studies with Toumani Diabate. Diabate is a kora master-a West African gourd and skin constructed, harp-like stringed instrument. The sounds created from this type of instrument are drone-like and can be spellbinding.

Dingman modulates the reverberation on his instrument masterfully, letting his hollow, floating sound hang in the air as he deftly plays both rhythm and melody. Oh’s bass lines are vibrant and communicative. Her bass carries the music so well in combination with Dingman’s chiming lines that the two seem to be mentally tethered. This is my first exposure to drummer Tim Keiper, who has worked with David Bryne. His trap work complements brilliantly, both utilizing intuition and subtlety, and his skills perfectly match to Dingman’s compositional needs.

 “Goddess” and “Folly of Progress” are credited by Dingman as being inspired by Oumou Sangare’s music. The fifty-two-year-old, Grammy Award-winning Mali Wassoulou vocalist has a strong voice, is a social activist, and known as “The Songbird of Wassoulu.”  If you are inquisitive and like to follow these world music rabbits down the hole, you can search them out, listen to their artistry, and experience a rewardingly different horizon of music.

Dingman has obviously used his exposure to several of these West African artists for inspiration, but he always finds a creative way to incorporate the essence of their musical style into his own re-imagination of their music. He uses his melodic and improvisational skills to instill his own sense of beauty in his compositions and performs them in a skillful, modern jazz-chamber style. I found the sources intriguing, original, and compelling, and Dingman has thankfully opened my eyes to some of these amazing world music creators. 

“Goddess” is particularly rhythmic with a driving beat that features Dingman’s buoyant vibes dance to over Keiper’s cadenced drums.  Dingman’s mallet work here is impressively quick and yet he always maintains a warm, radiant ripple of tone that hovers over the rhythm like a bilious cloud of joy.

“Folly of Progress” has its own mechanistic tempo, like an automated frenzy of bell driven machinery that never seems to relax, driven by unyielding production. The album also includes “Find A Way,” with some impressive bass work by Oh, “The Opening + Mudita,” “HiJinks and Wizardry,” and “Steps on the Path all worthy of your attention.

Embrace is a stunning treasure of musical tastes, senses, and sounds. Chris Dingman conceived and composed this set of transforming music that swells with its own world influences while retaining this talented artist’s distinct identity. The music has elements of Chamber music, modern jazz, and world music seamlessly transformed into the man's penchant for creating another tonally beautiful "aural feast."  Chris Dingman is a formidable vibraphonist, but he has once again found unique and unusual influences to develop his own growing mastery of compositional excellence. Take the time to absorb this music. This one deserves your attention.  

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