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Acclaimed vibraphonist Lewis Wright on the Norfolk links to his debut album

PUBLISHED: 17:12 04 April 2018 | UPDATED: 17:12 04 April 2018

Lewis Wright. Photo: Benjamin Amure

Lewis Wright. Photo: Benjamin Amure

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Norfolk multi-instrumentalist Lewis Wright has garnered acclaim as a vibraphonist. Now he has teamed up with fellow local jazz player, pianist Kit Downes, on his debut solo album that puts the instrument at the forefront.

Lewis Wright. Photo: Alex BonneyLewis Wright. Photo: Alex Bonney

The vibraphone isn’t an instrument that often takes centres stage, but as he prepares to release his debut solo album Norfolk multi-award winning musician Lewis Wright is preparing to strike a new note for the “vibes”.

The vibraphonist, drummer and composer, who first took a shine to the instrument at a percussion workshop for youngsters in Norwich, has teamed with former Mercury nominated Norfolk jazz pianist Kit Downes for the album titled Duets.

Released this week, but two years in the planning, the album features original compositions for vibraphone and piano all composed by Lewis, performed alongside Kit, who he has known and performed with since childhood.

“I wrote them really with us in mind,” said Lewis, who grew up in Hardingham. “I had done a lot of collaborative stuff over the years under various different ensemble names and so really wanted to put some music out under my own name.

Lewis Wright. Photo: Benjamin AmureLewis Wright. Photo: Benjamin Amure

“When I came to decide on the project it was sort of obvious to work with Kit, just because we have known either other for a long time, we grew up a village apart and did a lot of playing together when we were kids. We have also sporadically done duo gigs over the years. In that sense it’s been a long project.”

The album blends together Lewis’s many musical influences including jazz, soul and classical. His high flying career has seen him as a drummer work with high-profile artists such as Michael Kiwanuka, Joss Stone, Melody Gardot, Nerina Pallot and Emily King.

He is also a member of jazz ensemble Empirical with whom he has written for and recorded several critically acclaimed albums.

But despite being a multi-instrumentalist, the vibraphone is where he feels his self-expression is strongest. With limited material for vibraphone and piano, he set out to explore both the rhythmic and polyphonic capabilities of both instruments.

“I just wanted to push the writing into a few different directions taking into account the vibraphone and what it can do,” said Lewis. “There isn’t that much music that has been written for that instrumentation, I suppose the obvious pairing is Chick Corea and Gary Burton [a jazz vibraphonist and pianist pairing who recorded together in the 1970s]. But just knowing what both those instruments can do I really wanted to explore different writing styles, different orchestration, different roles.

“I saw it as an opportunity to showcase the vibes. Because there are just two instruments the vibraphone is quite exposed and there is quite a lot of room for different textures; blurring the boundaries between written material and improvisation really.”

Though the album reflects his first love, jazz, it also draws on classical composers such as Debussy and Bartók.

“Myself and Kit certainly come from jazz. But if you’re expecting a more traditional album or a straight ahead album, or something inspired by New York or New Orleans directly, it’s not so much that,” he explains. “Without really wanting to describe it this way, I suppose the easiest way would be to say chamber jazz or something. I don’t really know what genre it is.

Duets the solo album from Lewis Wright featuring Kit Downes. Photo: Signum RecordsDuets the solo album from Lewis Wright featuring Kit Downes. Photo: Signum Records

“There is no swing and no drums. But we recorded in a lovely large room with the piano so there is something quite kind of chamber-like in the way its been recorded. Certainly a lot of the influences weren’t just jazz; they were classical and a whole range of styles. Make of it what you will.”

Lewis’ love of the vibes goes way back. “I got exposed to the sound when I was quite young I guess,” he says. “My father was a percussionist and a producer. I started on drums when I was really young and I’d do these percussion workshops in Norwich that he would lead and there would be all those instruments, including tuned percussion which I’d never seen before, vibraphones being one of them. So I had an early exposure to it there and I took a shine to the instrument.”

Jazz is one of the few genres of music in which the instrument features in the foreground and his father pointed him in the direction of records on which it featured.

“I think he had a Milk Jackson [American jazz vibraphonist and bebop player] and Gary Burton thing. I then got very obsessed with that sound and started wanting to hear more of it. I started harping on about playing it but for good reason he didn’t want to go an invest in a vibraphone so he said why don’t you learn the piano. You need the keyboard skills if you are serious about this. But he was very supportive and eventually bought a second hand vibraphone.”

Lewis Wright. Photo: Steve PringleLewis Wright. Photo: Steve Pringle

He adds: “There are vibraphone records that continue to be influences, I suppose the American masters of the jazz tradition, Milk Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson [American jazz vibraphone and marimba player, best known for his 1966 Blue Note album Little B’s Poem], Gary Burton. But then I started listening to a lot of piano players and guitar players, other instruments with a lot of harmony and melody. Then saxophone players and trumpet players for single line melodies.”

Another formative influence for both him and Kit Downes was the Norfolk Students’ Jazz Orchestra. “At the time run by this guy called Dave Amis who was a big influence on a lot of local young musicians, mainly because he ran it like a proper band,” he recalls. “It didn’t feel at the time like this is just a student band, something we just do in our spare time. He really encouraged us to take it seriously and push ourselves. We started getting some good playing opportunities up and down the country. I like it made a lot of us realise that this is something that we really could do when we leave school.”

With both Lewis and Kit having gone on to major success it was natural that he would turn to the pianist for his first solo project.

He said: “When I came to write this record it was easy in the sense that I know Kit’s playing quite well. It was easier to then trust him to come up with great things in the moment. That’s the real difficulty sometimes as a composer working with an improvising musician, knowing how much to write down on the page, which details to write down and which to leave out.

“Realising that you can trust someone and they’ll come up with something better. In that sense it was great to write for Kit because I really trust his judgement.”

• Duets is released on April 6 on Signum Records. Lewis and Kit will be performing in Holt on May 19. More details at lewiswrightmusic.com

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