Martin Fabricius : conversation with the Danish vibraphone player from Copenhagen

Why did you start to play the vibraphone in the first place ? Have you tried out other instruments before ?

Martin Fabricius : I started with percussion when I was eight years old. I played drums and steel drums and I played marimba and spread out a lot. When I was around 16, I was good in many things and fairly good in others. But I wanted to concentrate on one thing. I was at my teacher's place one day. He had me sitting in his kitchen writing down scales. He then went to a room down the hall and started to play the vibraphone. It sounded fantastic and from then on I started to play the vibraphone and focus on that one instrument.

How would you characterise the vibraphone ?

Martin Fabricius : It has a very nice clean sound. It is very easy to learn when you start. Either you hit it or you don’t. At the same time it’s difficult because the sound is basically the same every time you hit it. On the saxophone you have the ability to hit a note and make it louder or softer - it’s a much more expressive instrument. With a vibraphone you have limits in that respect.

But when using the pedals you can extend the notes, am I right ?

Martin Fabricius : There is a sustain pedal like on the piano which will make the notes ring, but you have to learn to dampen the notes separately with the mallets to avoid everything ringing together. Using a combination of the sustain pedal and dampening with the mallets you can have long notes in a chord ringing, while at the same time play melody of short notes on top of it or the other way around. This is when it becomes really complicated to play the vibraphone.

How does the character of the instrument match your personality ?

Martin Fabricius : I love the sound and the pure no nonsense quality of it. I love art and design, Scandinavian design in particular and the sound is like that - very clean. On the other hand, the limits of the instrument present a challenge, as I am trying to be as expressive as a singer, a saxophonist or a guitarist. I try to make it as expressive as possible, getting away from the monotone ding-sound that is so easy to produce. Pushing the limits of the vibraphone has become a live-long challenge of mine.


When did you even start making music ?

Martin Fabricius : I started to play drums when I was eight and I remember that I wrote my first music very soon thereafter.

Why was it the drums in the first place ?

Martin Fabricius : That was a coincidence you know. A leaflet was handed out in school for signing up for the local music school. We had time to think it over in the class. One wanted to play the violin, another the cello and I felt I had to pick something different. All the mechanics and the shiny stuff on the drums appealed to me. My mom picked me up from school and saw the leaflet. She asked: „What's that?“. Oh, it is from the music school. I had already forgotten about it. „Do you want to play an instrument?“ - „Yeah, I want to play drums.“ And so it began.

What role did your parents play in that you dedicated yourself to music ?

Martin Fabricius : Nobody in my family played an instrument. The radio was switched on during Saturdays and Sundays for classical music. We went to theatres, we went to museums. My parents were interested in the arts and culture and in nature and always backed me up. My father would drive me around in his old LADA with the vibraphone on the roof. They drove me everywhere and came to all the concerts.

My parents loved music but had no musical education or background. Some people have the advantage to grow up with music like my kids. My son, who is 6 now, can pick up a tune on the radio and play it on the piano. He has an advantage, but there are other talents equally important. For instance the performing talent. Being on stage and liking it, communicating with people. As a musician you have to do your own tax declarations, design your own website, plan a tour. And in that respect I got plenty from my parents. The music I had to learn in music school.

Why did you choose to study at the Berklee College of Music? Is it just the non plus ultra like the Juilliard School for classical music ?

Martin Fabricius : Berklee is the Juilliard of Jazz music, especially for a vibraphone player. Gary Burton was the Dean of Curriculum. He did not teach but had a high level administration position at the College. He was the one who had the big overview of every single class and major at the college. As mentioned, he was not a teacher there, so I studied with Ed Saindon, one of the best vibraphone players in the world.

One day Ed said: „Gary will see you now.“ At that time, Gary Burton picked two students every year. That way he could be in touch with the students and at the same time pass his knowledge on. Gary was my teacher for a semester. There was no fee I had to pay. He just wanted to pass his knowledge and experience on. That was the most important thing I learned from him. If you meet a young person who’s is eager to learn - be generous with your time and pass it on.

Did you get a scholarship to study at Berklee ?

Martin Fabricius : Yes, I did. My parents backed me up the best they could but I got an achievement scholarship and also some financial aid from the USA.

You are now based in Copenhagen ? First choice or just by random ?

Martin Fabricius : I had a girlfriend waiting for me and therefore I went back home to Copenhagen. I grew up in a suburb of Copenhagen. The city is a Jazz City. You can bike everywhere. We are lucky to live five minutes away from the centre of the city. It is difficult for me to come up with another place I would rather be.

Can you remember when you first came into contact with jazz ?

Martin Fabricius : It was the time when I listened to my teacher playing vibraphone in his house. I think it was a Miles tune. At a young age I would ride my bike to the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. I went for days and listened to everything. There are now approx 1400 concerts or so. I used to listen to fusion like Steps Ahead, Yellow Jackets and Spyra Gyra with Dave Samuels on vibraphone. That was kind of jazzy. Of course I listened to Gary Burton's albums too. One of my favourite albums at that time was, and still is, Al Jarreau's ‚Look To the Rainbow‘.

Would you say that Gary Burton has the strongest influence on your performance on the vibraphone rather than Lionel Hampton or Milt Jackson and Dave Pike ?

Martin Fabricius : I listened to all of them but mostly to albums by Gary. Having him as a teacher had a big impact on me. I took a major in Film Scoring at Berklee. My main instrument was vibraphone but I have a degree in writing film music. After my lessons with Gary I had a hard time finding my place because his technically level of performing is so unbelievable high. I did not play much after graduating. During the first teen years I mostly wrote music for film.

I also worked in the publishing business. Then, after 10 years, I made my first album. It was a kind of „anti-Burton“ thing. He plays very fast and super precise. I wanted to go in the opposite direction and make something slow. I wanted to make, what I, with my personal taste, would consider the “perfect album“. Of course - I have not succeeded so far and probably never will, but it’s a great motivator to hunt the idea of perfect - and with age, that idea keeps changing.

Is the vibraphone more known for taking the rhythmical role or the melodic role ?

Martin Fabricius : I would say both. Many of us had an experience as drummers too. But there are also vibraphonists with a background as piano players. Gary, for instance, was first a piano player. What he introduced to playing the vibraphone was playing with four mallets and hold them in his hands at all the time. Burton came up with a „pianistic“ type of playing and that is the way I am schooled.


Could you describe the impulses and the inspirations for your compositions please ?

Martin Fabricius : Sometimes I have a melody in mind and sometimes it is a mood, a story or even a movie scene. I just wrote a song for my 88 year old mother. Most likely she will not be around much longer, but I did not want to write a sad song. It should be a beautiful song but with twists and turns in it. It is very simple and melodic. Once in a while there is a change that forces the melody to go into a different unexpected direction - just as in real live. In that case the story came first. I keep hundreds of little recorded memos that I can make use of.

Some songs are born in improvisations and then developed. I get it down on my recorder and then on paper within 20 minutes. From there it can take three months or even three years to make that sketch perfect. On a recent album (New World - Martin Fabricius Trio) there is a song called „In Your Own Time“. It is in 10/4. The melody is simple but the rhythm is rather complex. This song is only 16 bars long, so I wanted to write a B-section to it. I had to write four different B-sections before I realised, that the reason the B-section was so difficult to write, was that song didn’t need a B-section at all. That took me three years to realise. (laughter)

How important is the American Songbook considering your career ?

Martin Fabricius : I do not play Jazz Standards very often. It is a part of me because I studied it and played the repertoire, but it is not really my music. At Berklee we had to write counterpoint in the style of Bach as part of the studies. The students at Berklee with an American background had a hard time with this, but for the first time music came easy to me. Remember how I told you about the radio being set on a classical station on weekends throughout my childhood. I guess that was why.

Do you see a specific path taken by Jazz in Europe ?

Martin Fabricius : I think we come out of the American tradition as far as Jazz is concerned and without it there would be no European Jazz. Therefore we have to respect and honour the roots of Jazz. But we definitely have something totally different in Europe. In my opinion, European Jazz is much more adventurous than the contemporary Jazz coming from the USA. In the States they are quite conservative. In Europe, Jazz is making detours and it is like a fusion kitchen so to speak. European Jazz has a lot of folklore in it, too.

I thank you for the interview.

Interview © Ferdinand Dupuis-Panther during the Jazzahead 2023, Bremen. Photos © Ferdinand Dupuis-Panther

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