Dancing, bobbing and weaving, Christos Rafalides spills all his emotions onto the vibes. Mallets do the work as if on their own, striking at the intervals and harmonies that make his music ring out. New notes layer upon what is already hanging sweetly in the air, the colorful puzzle pieces constantly swimming, assembling and re-assembling.
His vibraphone trio Manhattan Vibes creates sound waves that pass throughout his ensemble, adding different slants of light. In the title track of his new CD “Near and Dear” the melody is a cool, insistent theme that you want to hear explored in all its iterations. It’s the type of song that you want to last a long time, to be given the chance to consider each go-round of the main statement for as long as the musicians can play it. The jazz standard “Secret Love” has a playful Latin feel that freshens it up. “Alfonsina Y El Mar” is wistful, open, airy, and “Social Drones” is as abstract as its name, compelling you to wait for the hook, and enjoying the journey as you wait. That is its very point.
Why did you start vibes?
I started playing when I got to high school. At the time I was studying classical percussion and that’s where I was introduced to the vibraphone, an instrument that combines piano and drums; in other words, harmony, rhythm and melody in a percussion setting.
What unique quality do you think it brings to jazz?
The vibraphone is an instrument that creates music through a mallet. So, although it is easy to create sound, it is extremely challenging to be expressive in actually making music. In other words, the vibraphone calls for its own, unique phrasing. And that’s its magic!
What are the major differences in the jazz scene between NYC and Greece?
Take a look at NYC and Greece: everything is different! The weather, the culture, the people, the food, the sounds, the air, the light. How can music not follow? The fundamentals are the same, of course, yet in Greece you will come across ethnic elements and rhythmic influences due to its geography and climate.
What was the most valuable part of your Berklee education?
Meeting and studying with people who played a pivotal role in my development as a musician, a professional and a person, among which are my first vibraphone professor, Ed Saindon; world-class marimba player, Nancy Zeltsman; and acclaimed drummer Antonio Sanchez. Moreover, being part of an international community meant that my way of thinking was “fertilized” on a daily basis, helping me expand my horizons and get a fuller view of the world.
How did you enjoy the music scene there?
That is where I was exposed to real jazz and real Latin jazz. However, truth is, I couldn’t really enjoy it, as I was in a practice room all day.
Why did you come to NYC?
Graduating from Berklee, I moved to NYC to do my Masters at the Manhattan School of Music with Joe Locke and live the full NYC jazz experience.
Who are your top musical influences?
I always remember being drawn to groove-oriented music! Starting from drums as a kid, my first urge was to immerse into groove itself; growing up, I realized how interesting harmony is and started looking for ways to combine both.
Personnel in ManhattanVibes and why did you form the group?
Manhattan Vibes is a band that expresses my voice as a composer and a performer. It consists of NY-based musicians who change from time to time, allowing me to take advantage of the multi-cultural element of the city.
If you could add one instrument to the ensemble (including vocals) which would it be?
I love the combination of vibes with vocals and it will be part of the new Manhattan Vibes project “Wabi Sabi” partnering with the exceptional vocalist Thana Alexa.
What is the PASIC convention like and describe your role there?
PASIC is an interesting place to be, gathering a vast community of international percussionists who spend 3-4 days together, collaborating on a vast array of topics – it’s really happening! I am usually there promoting products from my sponsors: my signature mallets by Mike Balter and vibraphones by Musser. I’ve also played a couple of concerts there through the years.
What surprised you the most about playing Jazz at Lincoln Center?
The energy of the place is sizzling! Knowing that I am performing on a stage where history was made by jazz legends is really exceptional and a huge honor.
The harmonies and melodies in “Point Two” seem from different geographies and cultures. Explain how that all came together?
As Gary Burton said about “Point Two” – “I don’t know if this is two jazz musicians that happen to be Greek, or two Greek musicians who happen to play jazz.” Petros Klampanis and myself both grew up in Greece, have the same cultural influences and are both living in NYC. So, our collaboration in “Point Two” is a musical story that describes our journey.
What do you like most about Athens Concert Hall?
It is a well-designed concert hall with great acoustics, but what makes it exceptional is the audience and their warmth. Performing for Greeks is really special to me.
What venues in New York do you like the most?
Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, the Jazz Standard, the Blue Note and the 55 Bar are some of my favorites.
Why are you involved in the residency at Music Village?
The concept of the Music Village is what makes me want to be a part of it: the idea that musicians take over a real Greek village at a location where cars are prohibited, and fill it with music for two full weeks. Hundreds of people from all around the world are gathered together at a small place, with one common purpose and this creates uplifting energy. Creativity reaches a whole other level, as music becomes the center of life for 24 hours a day.
Do you travel internationally with your vibes?
Thank God I do not have to travel with my vibes! Wherever I go, I am provided with an instrument, but when I am in New York, I need to carry my vibes with me, so I transport them in soft cases to protect them.
Are there innovations in vibe technology and if so, what are you hoping to purchase in the future to expand your experience?
There is some innovation that doesn’t really satisfy me. But there is plenty of space for development and I am working on it myself. I think that the future is in combining the acoustic element of the instrument with advanced electronics.
You’ve had many collaborations in small and big ensembles. What are the main ingredients for a successful collaboration?
Compatibility, mutual respect and inspirational material make a collaboration meaningful.
You’ve played in Israel, France, Croatia, Greece and the U.S. What country would you most like to perform in now?
Russia is on the top of my list, given its history in the performing arts. I think it would be exciting to play for a Russian audience.
On the other side of the globe, Brazil and Argentina are particularly appealing to me for their rich musical culture.
Masterclasses – what do you most hope to convey to students?
It is their way of thinking and listening in exploring music that I am trying to develop. If you don’t listen to the right music you will never play music the right way.
When did you release “Near and Dear”?
It was just released in November 2017, and it is my latest project, containing songs from The Great American Songbook.
Highlights of production and recording?
I had the opportunity to get into the studio with some excellent musicians and dear friends: Mike Pope and Petros Klampanis on bass, and Mauricio Zottarelli on drums, in order to record a number of classic pieces along with some original compositions.
Your favorite tracks?
I have no particular favorite as they are all Near and Dear to me.
What do you like most about the Great American Songbook?
The Great American Songbook combines compositions created by geniuses with inspired lyrics and is an essential part of American history. That is why it lasted through the years.
What do people ask you the most about your music?
I get all kinds of questions from “where do I find inspiration” to “why did I choose that subject or piece”, all coming from people trying to connect. It is the magic of music that makes people want to understand and relate.
Can you hear when a mallet’s becoming worn?
Mallets are sensitive; they wear out depending on how hard you play and how often. The typical lifespan would be six months. You can tell when a mallet is becoming worn by the sound and the way it feels. The articulation of your playing is different as the instrument doesn’t create the right sound.
Plans to grow your music in 2018?
I am planning the recording of the new Manhattan Vibes project “Wabi Sabi,” featuring Antonio Sanchez on drums and Thana Alexa on vocals. Hopefully it will be out in early 2019.
Apart from that, “Point Two” is also in my plans. We are going into the studio with Petros Klampanis, expanding the ensemble with a string quartet.
Your questions have been refreshing and inspiring! Thank you for taking the time to review my work!
For more information, visit www.ManhattanVibes.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Christos Rafalides.
© Debbie Burke 2017