The sound Corey Mwamba produces on his vibraphone is honest and true, a sweet clarion with rich harmony. He possesses a surgical precision with the mallets and knows how to coax beauty and depth from them.
When and why did you start playing vibes?
I started playing the vibes in Southampton (UK), during my A-levels (16-18 years old); although I didn’t own a vibraphone until I was 22 back in Derby. I saw a picture of Orphy Robinson in a book and I thought it looked cool. At that point, I didn’t think I’d heard a vibraphone before, and I had been consciously listening to jazz for around 18 months. I had no ambition to be a musician though, and only wanted to play informally.
I was lucky to have five lessons in music with a great teacher called Lewis Dyson, who was a percussionist (sadly he passed away in 2002), but then I have picked up things as I’ve gone on.
What do you like most about the sound?
First, I love the pliability of the vibraphone’s dynamics, pitch and timbre. It can be bent; it can be made thin; or full. When bellowing, it can create natural distortion in the ear. But it is also capable of being barely perceptible to the ear.
Second, I find it energizing. The sound comes upwards, towards the body of the performer; so I feel it first. It creates a field of energy that can sometimes be overwhelming, but I love it.
How many mallets do you own?
At the moment I have twenty-six mallets.
When did you start playing dulcimer and how would you compare the two instruments?
I was given the dulcimer by a family friend in 2003. It’s a small diatonic one with 12 courses. I’m nowhere near good enough on it – but I use it for electro-acoustic music, and I used to use it more in the duo with Orphy. The technique is totally different. I try to aim for a bottleneck guitar style on the dulcimer.
What is New Dark Art?
“New dark art” was the work that came out of my Master’s thesis. It looked at European medieval ideas around harmony, rhythm, notation and memory; and then used modifications of those things to make new music. I wrote – or began writing! – a theoretical treatise for the system, and some pieces. You can have a look at it here.
What are the most significant aspects you learned about medieval music (notation, harmonies, melody) that you applied to composing new jazz?
“New dark art” looked mainly at notation, and I chose to use letter notation (which was used as a teaching notation). The scores only have one part; everyone “reads” the same part. But in an ideal sense I wanted to have notation that could be memorized quickly, because memory played a large part in the transmission of medieval music.
Do we have to learn to listen differently to this?
Not at all!
Where does New Dark Art stand now?
I still use the system when playing. I keep threatening to do more with it, with more players; but right now my head is buried deep into a Ph.D.
My main group is called Yana, and that’s with Dave Kane and Joshua Blackmore. We have an album coming out this year on Two Rivers Records, called “Baby/People.”
I am in another trio with Mat Maneri and Lucian Ban. Then, there’s a trio with Ntshuks Bonga and Andy Champion; and Andy and I also work with Sylvain Darrifourcq and Valentin Ceccaldi in our quartet called Sonsale.
I’m in a sextet called Spirit Farm with Adam Fairhall, Anton Hunter, Johnny Hunter, Christophe de Bezenac, and Dave Kane. Adam, Johnny and I have an occasional group called Backyard Chassis.
I do quite a bit of work with Martin Archer; I’m in his Engine Room Favourites, and Story Tellers; and we have a group with Seth Bennett and Peter Fairclough called the Sunshine! Quartet.
I play duos with Rachel Musson; Robert Mitchell; Martin Pyne; Walt Shaw; Mark Sanders; Orphy Robinson; and Sue McKenzie.
I occasionally do Richard Spaven’s group; and I’m an honorary member of Glasgow Improviser’s Orchestra (GIO). And I do ad hoc things, improvising with different people; and sometimes that grows into a group, like with Han-earl Park and Dominic Lash. I also play solo.
I’m beyond honored that Laura Cole is recording a series of my compositions, on piano; and I’m doing some composition for Maison Foo, a great theater company. Other than that, I’m focusing on creating work for the Ph.D. I recently performed “as_the_tex(t): body” at the LUME Festival with Robert, Rachel, Liran Donin and Richard Olatunde Baker.
Your favorite track and why?
Most of the work I do is live, and luckily my live work with Yana is almost always recorded. I couldn’t pick a favorite out of them.
I had a lot of fun recording the music for Sipping Rioja at Home, which is an older album of mine. It was recorded using a £2 boundary microphone and a Windows 98SE desktop PC. My favorite track on that is “Joint Control Warfare.”
Which musicians inspire you?
This could be quite a long list: I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of inspiring people!
My first inspiration is Jessica Williams, since it was her music that got me listening to jazz in the first place. Then Orphy, who has amazing energy and has always been supportive; he, along with Pat Thomas and Tony Kofi, kept me playing when it was pretty bleak.
My brothers Dave Kane and Joshua Blackmore are constantly inspiring. I think I would have quit a lot earlier if it weren’t for those two. Joshua has been in bands of mine since he was fifteen, and he was amazing then! And Dave is a true kindred spirit.
Then there are people like Robert Mitchell, Nick Malcolm, Rachel Musson, Laura Cole, Cath Roberts, Johnny and Anton Hunter, Martin Archer, Jason Yarde, Raymond Macdonald – you know, I could throw in everyone that makes GIO work! There are a lot of people.
Who are your favorite vibes artists?
No favorites, but people I really like are Orphy, Lionel Hampton, Jason Adasiewicz, Walt Dickerson, Martin Pyne, Teddy Charles, Bobby Hutcherson, Dave Pike and Khan Jamal.
How would you characterize your style?
That’s a tough one. I work within a Black aesthetic that’s informed by jazz/improvised music and my experiences here. So I guess I would characterize my style as Black, British, informed, and improvisational.
Talk about the arts causes you are most passionate about?
I guess there are two things:
1) Musicians’ well-being and working conditions; and
2) People having the opportunity to access the arts.
And it’s those two things that drove me to start One Note Sunday, which led into The Family Album, which is now Out Front! and is still going and growing up as an organization. I’m working on developing Derby (my home town, and where I live) into a place where more jazz and improvised music happens, and I’m very passionate about that.
I’m also currently the artistic director for Derby Jazz, and doing the two things is difficult, but rewarding.
Is there a huge arts activism movement in the UK?
If by arts activism we mean encouragement for the public to engage in the arts, then yes and no. I think the case for the arts in the UK has centered around providing evidence for its economic potential. This has led to things like graphic and web design being shoehorned in and forming a label that sounds like it supports the arts but doesn’t: “the creative industries.”
These tend to have quite a bit of money behind them, but from what I have seen they are ultimately self-serving, aiding only a few. I think there are smaller pockets of more honest activism and advocacy for the arts, and these are very necessary; but I wouldn’t call these a movement.
Where in the US have you performed?
I played once at St. Nick’s in Sugar Hill, New York on November 12, 1998. I remember this specifically because the session was halted as we had just heard that Kenny Kirkland had died; and a school friend of his came in and played a solo piece to honor him.
Where would you like to perform that you have not?
Canada. I’ve never been to Canada. I’d also like to play in Zambia, which is where my dad is from.
Biggest challenge in the music industry today?
Not using the word “industry” in connection with “music”!
Seriously, as much as I understand that there are products created from work – and we should be paid for working – music is very much a process; and the field in which I work has a strong social component that has nothing to do with economics or manufacturing. If we’re not working in the entertainment industry – and that IS an industry – then we don’t need to bow down to that language.
Where will you perform throughout the rest of 2017, and what about 2018?
I’m not sure yet! I roughly know what’s coming this year. I am planning a few things for the next two years, primarily focused on my doctorate work. I’m hoping to do a few more things with Yana, and with Mat and Lucian, and there are a few quartets I’m writing for and planning. But more of my time is taken up with presenting artists here in Derby, which is really important to me.
For more information, visit http://www.coreymwamba.co.uk/.
Photo courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017