an interview with vibraphonist + producer Alec Streete
meditative beats + chaotic jams...
Today…in The Molly Zone…an interview with Denver-based vibraphonist and producer Alec Streete!
Alec was another interviewee recommendation from Alex White aka Commodity Creature. By this point in my interviews with Alex’s rec’d people, I was basically AGOG at the sheer variety of types of folks in the Colorado jazz/improv/experimental scene. It takes a lot of talented people to make a local musical engine run and I was getting to talk to a bunch of them, each with an aspect of musicality previously unfamiliar to me. In the case of Alec Streete: vibraphone.
Here is a basic download of vibraphone facts and history for some context because I definitely needed it myself — vibraphone is a percussion instrument invented in 1921. Vibraphone was originally used as a novelty instrument in vaudeville orchestras before its powers were harnessed by jazz musicians in the 1930s. The first recorded improvised vibraphone solo was played by Lionel Hampton in a Louis Armstrong rendition of the song “Memories of You” (good ol And Introducing covered Louis’s memoir Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans if you want to listen about how Louis learned to play trumpet in child jail). More recently you might have noticed the conspicuous use of vibraphone in West Side Story, accentuating rumbles and such.
The instrument sounds cool as hell and I wanted to know: how does one end up playing vibraphone, anyway? Which Alec was more than willing to share with me, plus real talk about the emotional hazards of getting randomly chosen to play at improvised jazz jams, and a bit about his parallel musical path as a producer. He has released two beat tapes (BLKLNGS and FLOWERS) within the past year that contain swirling, meditative, slightly off-kilter mixtures of jazz and hip hop — I highly recommend checking them out!
Omg I just learned that one of the words for vibraphone player besides “vibraphonist” is VIBIST. Vibist…
This interview has been edited for length + clarity :)
MO: Thank you for taking the time to chat. So how did you start playing music with Alex?
AS: We met at the Mercury Jazz Café Jam in Denver. I hosted that with my friend Gabe Gravangno [on drums], and on bass was Brad Goode, who is a multi-instrumentalist most well-known for trumpeting. We were playing there and he came and sat in on a few tunes and we kept coming out to the same jams, and that's how we met became friends.
MO: Cool! So I know vibraphone now is one of your main musical things, and I would love to hear about your musical journey to it.
AS: I started playing music when I was like ten years old. I played percussion. I auditioned for Denver School of the Arts in seventh grade, and once I got in there, I was trying to do drums. But then a year after I got in, I met this teacher there named Greg Harris, who is one of the greatest musicians in Denver, and one of the greatest people I've met. He's been a great mentor to me. And he played vibraphone professionally.
I was taken aback by the talent level of everyone at my school, and there were some really amazing drum set players, so I thought to myself, Maybe I should try something else to see if I can fit in there another way. And so I started playing vibraphone, and it's all kind of been history from there.
MO: Transitioning to that instrument, did you have to kind of start from scratch?
AS: Yeah, I really did. It's a weird instrument and there are many different ways to approach it. It’s a combination of playing piano and playing drums, and that's kind of what initially drew me to it — I can be as rhythmic as I want to be, and have the attack of striking something with with a mallet, but I can also learn melodies and be able to play harmony in a band.
It was a weird transition to vibraphone. I hadn't played much piano before I started on it, so learning scales and learning what each note was was a trip. It's hard to get it around places, but playing it has been really great.
MO: Oh, I was going to ask about that — so you have your own vibraphone! You have to bring it all around? That's crazy.
AS: Yeah. It's right there [gestures at rectangular black case in the back of his room] Getting it around is the main part that I just do not like about it. I’ve figured out a system now where I can take it all apart and then deadlift the heaviest part into my car and be good from there.
MO: Oh man.
As: I'll have back problems in a little bit.
MO: Oh, I can imagine. That's like — with people who play drums, if there's a venue that has drums in their backline, then they're good to go. But I can't imagine there's many places with a built-in vibraphone.
AS: Yeah, it's very rare. There are some places, but it is very rare.
MO: So with playing live music, what are the particular scenes you would say you’re involved in?
AS: I'm involved in the jazz scene in Denver. I usually play in improvised music groups. We're all playing Black American music, and it ranges from straight-ahead jazz to more modern improvised music.
And I'm slowly working my way into the production scene, too. That's my other musical pursuit that I'm trying to work on: learning how to DJ, learning how to make beats, making perfect loops that I can get entranced in. I’m very slowly inching my way into that scene.
MO: Oh yeah, I saw you had production stuff on Bandcamp. Is that totally solo work?
AS: There are two beats on there that are co-produced by my great friend No-Fvce and my other great friend Kutmaster Killdozer, who both have been mentors to me in making this kind of music. No-Fvce actually mixed and mastered the whole thing too. He's an amazing musician and has taught me like so much about that kind of music. That whole project is a solo beat tape, you could call it.
MO: So what goes into making the final product for something like that?
AS: I was actually thinking about this recently. Trying to keep up with both vibraphone and making beats...the process is so different for each one, but there are some common factors. With making beats, it's more of a meditative thing for me. You have to be able to meditate in that state, because you're listening to the same thing over and over and over again, trying to find out why the third beat in the fourth measure is little bit off or something like that.
Ideally, I would love to be in a more meditative state when I'm practicing vibraphone, but that's not always the case, because I'm a lot more critical of every factor that goes into it. How hard I'm hitting the bar, how it sounds if I lift up my mallet this high versus halfway as high…there's a lot more nitpicking on that aspect.
Keeping up with both of them has been a journey for sure. I'm still figuring out how I'm doing it, but it's working right now.
MO: I've never been to the kind of jam-style performances that you play in with people like Alex. Will you describe what an average jam experience is like?
AS: So there’s usually a ‘house band.’ The venue hires a band, usually a quartet, and they play an hour-long set, just them. Then there’s a little break, and then the guy who's leading the band will say, “We're going to start getting people up here.” It varies by the venue of the style of how they get people up there. At some places there's an iPad where you write your name down on the list, and in other places, the guy just, like, calls you up. He'll just point you out and call you up.
MO: That's kind of crazy.
AS: Yeah, it adds to the fun of it sometimes, and adds to the embarrassment of it other times. The whole point is to try to be musical with possibly complete strangers. Because we all practice and play these tunes [jazz standards] so much, we try to pay respect to them, while also trying to make them new and fun and exciting.
It can get pretty hectic sometimes. Maybe everyone wants to play, and there's no organized system for who’s coming out to play. Or everybody knows this one tune except someone on the bass. There are a million different options of things going a little awry. Recently I've not enjoyed them as much, because a lot of the time it seems like it’s a pissing contest of not trying to be musical, more just trying to show off.
MO: Oh, I bet.
AS: But usually they're a great amount of fun, and it's good to keep up your knowledge of the standards. There’s probably 400 of them out there.
MO: I was going to say — getting on the same page about knowing the same song seems like a tall order.
AS: Yeah, seriously. It's a lot.
MO: Is there a recent live performance you’ve done that has stood out to you in some way for being especially memorable or successful?
AS: Last Friday, I actually did my first set of my production stuff. That was super fun because it was the first time I'd ever done anything like that. Finally being able to show that music to people in person has been pretty cool.
MO: That's awesome. So is that you DJing the songs and mixing them live?
AS: Yeah, exactly. I made all the beats and then improvised a set list for them and mixed them all into each other.
MO: What kind of venue was that in?
AS: It’s called Scorpio Palace.
MO: Ah. I'm a Scorpio so I am sure I would like Scorpio Palace.
AS: It was a lot of fun. It’s a very DIY venue. It used to be this crazy venue called Rhinoceropolis, and then new people bought it and renovated the whole thing. Definitely a DIY vibe.
MO: Well, I think the only other question I have is about anything that you're working on that you're looking forward to or excited about?
AS: Yeah, I have another beat tape dropping sometime in December [ed. note: Flowers, out now!] And then I'm in this band called Splifftet. We try to do all original compositions, trying to honor and pay homage to Black American music. We just released an EP on Bandcamp and we're going to be playing some shows here in the winter in Denver.