Christian Tamburr sculpture

As art moves us, the ripple effects can cause the creation of new art; so has composer and vibraphonist Christian Tamburr been inspired by the larger-than-life sculptures of artist Seward Johnson. Tamburr’s new CD that riffs off these massive works was named after his favorite one of them, “Awakening.”

From the sweet hook of “Between Appointments” (feel the swing that threads itself through the unison of vibes and muted horn) to the energetic pace and multi-layered rhythms of “Double Check” to the haunted loveliness of the vocals from Clint Holmes on “Hiding in the Light,” these ten tracks offer a lush and sonic complement to Seward’s gleaming, fluid human forms. The music premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center and will be followed by touring which starts this summer and runs into 2021.

What is your earliest memory of hearing the vibes and deciding that’s what you wanted to play?

I was introduced to the instrument in 8th grade (middle school) while playing in my school’s jazz band. I was a percussionist/drummer and playing in the jazz band. When I wasn’t playing drums I was asked to play the vibes. Been hooked since then!

A walk through the sculpture gardens at Princeton set this in motion; was that an “Aha!” moment?

I do a lot of work in creative development for both independent artists and large production shows. As I walked through the gardens, I felt like each sculpture I came upon transformed me into a scene, frozen in time on either a stage production show, in a film or on TV. I could sense the action of the characters; I could feel the momentum of the conversation or the action being displayed and thus could really hear the underscore of that scene play out in my head.

The sculpture that set this all into motion was The Awakening – which just struck me with so much emotional connection and action that I needed its story told both melodically and lyrically. 

What was a key moment in your early career that really set your creativity free?

I purchased a keyboard workstation when I was around 15 years old. I loved recording on that thing and that I could multi-track and play all the parts. It was like I had the whole band in that keyboard.

I spent a ton of time writing music, but never really shared it or performed it with anyone. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s when I started taking my original compositions into the live setting and performing them. Seeing and feeling the audience reaction was forever memorable. I now incorporate a good amount of original music into my live performances.

This new album and project is ALL original music which is a first for me with regards to an album release or live performance. 

How did the collaboration with Seward Johnson come about?

I met Seward many years back as I was collaborating with his wife on a production in NYC. I had met him many times and hadn’t really put together who exactly he was. It wasn’t until I performed a private event at the Grounds For Sculpture that I put his name together with the iconic sculptures that I had seen all over the place.

I don’t often Google people so it really came as a surprise to see he was who he was! Seward’s sensibility for capturing real life or moments that often just pass us by, combined with a great sense of humor, serve as a fantastic pallet to build a story around and thus to build a song around. I can imagine the scenes of these sculptures going from frozen to real life and hear the conversation or the action come to life. The music and the melodic story seem to follow closely with that imagination.

The most fun part of working together?

I was honored to be granted the opportunity to use Seward’s work as a muse for my original music. I was given complete freedom to compose from my perspective without outside influence.

Seward has always insisted that his work is to be interpreted individually, and that he would never want to tell someone how to “experience” his work, but it meant a great deal to know that he trusted me and my music to add a new layer of dimension to the way someone might view one of his pieces. He is a kind and inspiring individual who has been nothing but gracious in this entire process.

His atelier which oversees his works globally has been a key part of connecting all the dots and this project wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for their involvement and guidance. 

Why have you named it “The Awakening”?

This is one of my favorite pieces and it symbolizes in many ways the awakening of all of the sculptures through music. The sculpture itself has traveled the world and is widely recognizable. It has been a key image to connect my music with this body of work. It seemed incredibly appropriate to name the project after that iconic piece. 

How did each of the ten sculptures inspire their own composition; did you draw on mythology or any particular themes?

I really just sat myself in front of these sculptures and tried to imagine what was occurring in each moment. I built a small story behind each character or closed my eyes and tried to hear the sounds of the conversation, or of the jungle or of movement… through that I was able to sit at the piano and turn each individual story into a melodic resemblance of each sculpture.

I draw from the thematic and somewhat theatrical nature of his sculptures, along with a subtle sense of humor to try to bring the songs alive through each sculpture. The most difficult part was making sure that the integrity of each song met my expectations for the integrity of Seward’s incredible sculptures.

I believe the result is a body of music that stands on its own, compositionally, and is then heightened when heard in conjunction with the images of each sculpture. It’s unique to give the audience a perspective of where a song’s initial inspiration came from, and that context is very rewarding for me to share when performing this music live.

What was the reaction to your world premier?

I was thrilled to have such a wonderful turnout at Lincoln Center. That venue is iconic in its own right, and to perform six shows of all original music was a huge professional accomplishment. I was honored to have such a wonderful audience of music lovers balanced by an equal number of art and sculpture lovers. The combination of audience represents the wide impact this multi-sensory performance experience provides. It leverages the senses to listen and see the music, its inspiration and its performance. A moment of art inspiring art. 

Talk about the personnel – what was your band’s initial reaction to this idea?

JALC was very intrigued by the idea and interested in how it would fit within the dynamic of their venue. After a 30-minute call to further elaborate on the music, the sculptures and Seward they were all in. JALC was nothing but supportive and has been throughout our professional relationship spanning now almost eight years.

I didn’t set the band configuration until I knew what the music needed to be. It was great to build the project this way as it left so many options open and I felt untethered to the traditional jazz band configuration. We feature vocals, trumpet, vibes, world percussion, folly percussion, steel string guitar and the styles of the album range from straight ahead jazz to modern jazz to singer-songwriter.

If you had to give one statement to listeners about how to be open to jazz, what would you say?

This is a tough question to answer simply… but I honestly feel that the label “Jazz” is vast and encompasses everything from Duke Ellington to Kenny G. Everyone has an opinion about what is “REAL JAZZ” and the argument goes on and on…

To keep it simple – listeners should be open to music that moves them, that makes them want to sing along or tap their feet, and get up and dance. Listeners should be open to music that makes their imagination go beyond the notes and take them on a journey that speaks to them. IF that’s jazz, smooth jazz, rock, etc. I don’t know if the label really matters.

Be open to music that’s good for you, your heart and your mind.

For more information, visit www.soundsforsculpture.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Christian Tamburr.
(c) Debbie Burke 2020

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