At age 37, bassist-composer Matthew Rybicki may have waited longer than most to make his first recording as a leader. But from a cursory listen to Driven, his auspicious debut as a leader, it would seem that he picked just the right time.
“Sometimes people get pushed out there too fast, but I really just wanted to marinate a little bit,” says the Cleveland native and longtime New York City resident who has apprenticed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Nnenna Freelon, Victor Goines and Terell Stafford.
“Obviously I wanted it to be something that I was going to be proud of but also I wanted to feel like there was some real weight behind it, that I believed in what I was doing enough to share it with people. I’m just at the beginning part of sharing that weight now with this record and I look forward to sharing more in the future.”
Joining Rybicki on his impressive first outing are such stellar players on the New York jazz scene as pianist Gerald Clayton, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., saxophonist Ron Blake, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and trombonist Michael Dease. Together they demonstrate an indelible chemistry and intuitive sense of risk-taking on Rybicki’s thoughtfully crafted compositions, along with two well chosen covers. The bassist reveals a strong sense of groove throughout while his swing factor is undeniable. “It’s definitely critical for me to be trying to swing all the time, and I think we did pretty good job of representing that on the album,” he says. “It’s a high priority for me to be thinking about the dance aspect first in playing our music.”
That irrepressible swing factor is apparent from the opening track, “The Slow Stride,” to the bop-imbued title track (Rybicki’s homage to Oscar Pettiford with allusions to his “Tricotism”), the adventurous and interactive trio number “Seventh Son” and a blazing uptempo romp through the jazz standard”Secret Love.” A potent soloist, Rybicki testifies on the blues-soaked “Lowcountry Boil,” stretches out on the lazy, loping ” A Mean Lean” and the propulsive “Big Money and the Left Side” (an homage to his former bass teacher Rodney Whitaker). Elsewhere on Driven, Rybicki acquits himself with uncommon lyricism on the waltz-time number “Someday I May Be Far Away” and the introspective ballad “Lisa’s Song.” For a bit of variety, he hits a deep groove on the traditional calypso number “Yellow Bird” and summons up an African flavored vibe on the uplifting closer “Nouakchott,” featuring percussionist Matthew Baranello and African vocalist Selloane Nkehla, who plays Rafiki in the Broadway production of The Lion King. As he explains, “‘Yellow Bird’ was my late parents’ favorite song, so this is a tribute, in a sense. And while ‘Nouakchott’ may not fit stylistically with the rest of the record, it does represent some of my own past. For the first five years I was in New York, I played in a world music group. During that period I made a deep study of West African music and became obsessed with the African continent. So this music is a part of me, just as the music of Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington is a part of me.”
Growing up in a funeral home, one of nine children of a Cleveland mortician, a teenaged Rybicki (pictured above) played electric bass in various rock ‘n’ roll bands. His jazz epiphany came while attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I’m sort of a late comer to the game, which is probably also why I wanted to wait a little bit as far as putting something out,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I really got introduced to jazz. But then I got turned around and completely lost my mind on Duke Ellington at Berklee.”
After relocating to New York in 1995, he began working in pit bands on Broadway and at Radio City Music Hall. “Of course, it was not my preferred artistic choice but it helped pay the rent and also influenced me in terms of learning the importance of presentation in a performance. It also was a great experience to get some bow chops together. And from there, I slowly began trying to get involved with the jazz cats.”
One of his early hookups was with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It was through Gordon that Rybicki eventually met trumpeter and JLCO artistic director Wynton Marsalis, who would become a significant mentor. “I would tag along with Wycliffe to JLCO rehearsals,” he recalls. “Rodney Whitaker was the bass player in the band then and I would actually take lessons with him during their lunch breaks. And from there they welcomed me in to be able to hang out. I started to ask Wynton some questions and he was always so giving and thoughtful with his answers. Finally he said, ‘Why don’t you come over to the house and we’ll talk and play.’ So we started playing tunes in his apartment and he started giving me little assignments. He’d say things like, ‘Just study the two feel of Arvell Shaw.’ Or he’d ask me to transcribe and analyze the Bach chorales. It was sort of a mentor-pupil relationship at first, and over time I had the opportunity to sit in with the band and play the occasional gig with the JLCO and just develop a friendship with Wynton. He always treats me like family when we’re together. I really feel like he’s a mentor, brother, friend and drill sergeant all in one.”
Regarding the remarkable chemistry heard on the Driven sessions, Rybicki says, “From the outset I told the guys, ‘I don’t at all want to tell you what to play. I’m hiring you because I like what you do. Please bring that.’ And they all did with flying colors. It’s really nice to have that combination of different personalities, and what was great about these guys is that not only do they bring their own thing but they’re able to let the music tell them what’s appropriate to play. And I think they did that completely. I really am so pleased with how everybody played on the album.”
Drummer Owens, Rybicki’s classmate in the Juilliard program, brings a masterful Ed Thigpen-like touch with brushes on ballads while generating kinetic, swinging energy on the kit with sticks. The underrated saxophonist Blake, a bandmate of Owens’ in Christian McBride’s group, possesses a robust tone on tenor (perhaps best exemplified here on the beautiful “Lisa’s Song” and on “Big Money and the Left Side”) and nonchalantly soars on soprano (as on “Yellow Bird”). Hendrix, another colleague of Rybicki’s on the New York scene, is prominently featured on the lovely flugelhorn showcase “Someday I May Be Far Away” (which the composer titled after a famous Romare Bearden painting). Trombonist Dease, another fellow Juilliard grad, is also featured on “Yellow Bird.” A key player throughout Driven is pianist Clayton, whose keen instincts and brilliant comping elevate the proceedings from track to track. “It’s like it’s intuitive – it’s not like he’s just reacting,” says Rybicki. “He’s putting ideas down but they don’t get in the way. And it’s always swinging and just so free. He just inspired us all.”
Matthew Rybicki · Driven
Release Date: February 8, 2011
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