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Interview with Mark Rapp
"I think you can uphold jazz ideals, be true to the music and yet still bring the greater public onboard with it," said jazz trumpet player Mark Rapp who perhaps more than anyone else among today's trumpeters is breaking down the age-old paradigms as to how the trumpet ought to be played in a jazz environment.
Rapp is not stretching the boundaries out of disrespect for jazz history and tradition, but he is a composer and a player who is looking for an opportunity to enhance the music that he loves. He is not afraid to take risks and experiment with his music to accomplish that end.
Rapp likes to incorporate popular pieces of music such as "Green Eyed Lady," into his live performances. "It has a killing bass line, it's funky and it grooves. It gives you a platform to play on and a fun platform at that. It has good energy, good time and at moments it can be aggressive. It is a cool tune. We have tried other songs such as "Time Of The Season," but it just didn't work. It came off sounding like a karaoke tune. Some tunes just don't lend themselves to being translated into a jazz vehicle," he said.
Rapp explained the approach that he takes when approaching the popular music that he includes in his repertoire, "As to how I play a (popular) song, as a trumpet player, I play it how I hear it, instead of trying to emulate the vocals. The trumpet has a certain brassiness to it, and it isn't always as conducive as a saxophone (might be), playing the same (tune). When I am playing one of these popular melodies, I (feel) I have to state it clear enough that people can hear the melody. I put my own vibe on it, my own phrasing and my own dynamic." He added that he takes some of his phrasing cues from masters such as Miles Davis and Terrance Blanchard.
One would hope that most musicians would be passionate about their craft, but it is surprising just how passionate Mark Rapp is about the music and his listening public. He strives to make his music accessible to as vast an audience as possible, without comprising the integrity of jazz ideals. For the sake of comparison, and without being critical, Rapp cited examples of several modern day trumpet players who he feels are genuinely concerned with honing their straight ahead jazz skills, but make little attempt to provide the listener with accessibile music.
"All they are concerned about is playing great trumpet, learning and studying the most they can about music, while taking it and developing it further. Sometimes the layperson gets lost and they don't quite understand. It is like jumping into the middle of a chess game, you don't know what is going on. It is really fascinating, but you don't really understand it. What I am trying to do is allow a way in for the general public. The way that I do that is by presenting melodies that are known, grooves that you can nod your head to. I try to give them grooves that they are used to hearing. If they are used to hearing Dave Matthews, and they say give us some of that, I say okay I can get onboard with this. That is what we do. We go for it, and explore the modern jazz ideals. What I try to do is bridge the gap between the jazz artists. You will get the audience for a Dave Matthews, Chris Botti, or Radiohead type crowd, but you are also playing some good music that others are going to love. You can play some interesting changes overtop of the usual changes," said Rapp.
To say that Mark Rapp is simply an artist who blends contemporary jazz music with traditional genre ideals would be doing him a huge disservice. He thinks outside the box, pushes the creative boundaries, and looks for new ways to enhance his compositions. For instance with his song "1 st Minute, 1st Round," Rapp plays the didgeridoo, an instrument first used by the aboriginal people of Australia. Being an enthusiast when it comes to the didgeridoo, I was pleasantly surprised at how Rapp seems to have lifted the instrument beyond its usual application to produce a deep, heavy drone. Set against the backdrop of the other instruments, in his ensemble the didgeridoo takes on a faintly melodic attitude.
Rapp explained how he uses the didgeridoo during his live performances, "We use it to lay down a vibe and foundation, then we blow. It is completely free, improvised and in the moment. There really is no structure, except that we are trying to build a tune with some high points and low points. We definitely experiment live, and on the spot, but always maintaining some sort of accessibility. (It may) have a backbeat to it, or start off simple, then we develop it and go along for the ride."
Rapp first picked up the didgeridoo when he was living in New Orleans. He joined a group called the New World Funk Ensemble. The band had written a new composition that called for a didgeridoo to be played. Rapp picked up the story from here, "I didn't know what it (the didgeridoo) was, but they (the band) introduced me to it. A guy in New Orleans who makes didgeridoos out of PVC pipe made one for me that was in the right key for the song. He taught me the basic technique and gave me a couple of CDs to listen to so I could hear how it sounded and how people played it. It took the better part of a week for me to get a handle on it. (Laughing he says) I remember on the first gig, I had to jam on it for seven or eight minutes. I made it through the first tune, but I was just so exhausted and my abs were burning. I was blowing way too hard."
"I really just taught myself how to play it (the didgeridoo) I have never really studied how the aboriginal people approach the instrument or the folklore behind it. I just had fun with the instrument. I notice when I am playing gigs in jazz clubs, people can get (blasé) about other instruments, but when you bring out the didgeridoo it is a whole other world. Everyone lights up, and is fascinated by it. What I like to do is put some beats on it, put some rhythms on it, put it through a wah-wah pedal and give it some effects. You put it through the mic, which converts it to a digital signal, and once you have a digital signal, you can do anything that you want with it," said Rapp.
Rapp's musical influences have come from several sources. Several years ago, he would sit in with the alternative/ southern rock group Sister Hazel, when the Floridians were touring in Rapp's native South Carolina. Other artists that he has shared the stage with include, Branford Marsalis, Darius Rucker and Hootie and the Blowfish.
"I think anytime that you sit in with another musician, on any type of music, it pulls you out of your comfort zone. I think that is what life is all about. It is about trying new things. It makes you a more well rounded musician. When you are dealing with other musicians and songwriters it really forces you to simplify and not play with so many notes. (You learn) to play with a sense of color and expression. You learn how just a few notes can enhance the music, and make the experience two thousand times better. When you take that knowledge and experience into a jazz tune, you begin to understand that you don't have to play all these licks and crazy things. It gets into what Miles Davis kept on preaching, simplify, simplify. If you listen to a lot of his stuff, he is not playing a lot of (complicated) music. He is playing simple notes and then taking a break. Then he plays a couple of more notes. That is how we communicate, we say something, we pause, you say something back, and pause. I think that is a little truer to life."
Obviously, there are a lot of music fans out there who agree with Rapp's observations because on August 7th in New York City at Joe's Pub, he unleashed his still untitled debut CD. The venue was sold out, and would be concertgoers were turned away at the door. At the end of the evening, Rapp and his band received a standing ovation from the appreciative audience.
The album is comprised of sixteen tracks, which were recorded over two weekends. Rapp did not hold back on this CD, employing the services of Grammy Award winning producer Jason Olaine (John Scofield, Roy Hargrove) and sound engineer Robert " L.B." Dorsey (Beyoncé).
Rapp says he was able to cross over the lines of traditional jazz, yet still was able to retain the integrity of jazz music. "There are hip hop influences, not so much that you lose the organic nature of jazz music. We approached it as half-jazz and half-hip hop. We recorded it in jazz fashion, in terms of running the tunes and doing the takes.
On October 10, fans in New York City will have the opportunity to hear Rapp and his band present selections from his still-to-be-named CD, at the Triad Theater. On September 16th, Rapp and his ensemble will play two sets of their own material and backup Bradford Marsalis for a third set, at Southern Exposure 2007, on Main Street in downtown Greenville, South Carolina.
By Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved
Joe Montague is an internationally
published journalist / photographer and the publisher of Riveting Riffs,
www.rivetingriffs.com . His ministry is dedicated to the memory of his
late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18. All copyright
and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague.