In this jaded age of ours, it’s easy to believe that the root of all art is the love of opportunism. Irony is the currency of the times. Under such circumstances, it can be refreshing to encounter talented artists who strive to elevate the community instead of only themselves.
Max Ribner is the leader of the Max Ribner Band, which released the excellent Leap To Flame album last year to rave reviews. This week the 29-year-old Ribner is celebrating the video release of July 2014’s Leap To Flame Dream Show, a one-time performance at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall that was the culmination of many months of work and many years of “dreaming,” as he puts it. I sat down with him in his gorgeous backyard in SE Portland last Wednesday to learn more about what he’s up to.
I started by asking Max about his background. It turns out that he’s a Connecticut native who went to jazz camps on the East Coast as a kid and went on to attend the Berklee School of Music. While there, he initially focused on the trumpet, but later found himself falling in love with the trumpet’s cousin, the flugelhorn, which Chuck Mangione made famous on his track “Feels So Good.” “Every time I’d solo I’d pick up the flugelhorn,” he told me. “It’s got a little softer tone, a little more rounded of a sound. You can play it in someone’s ear. It’s more of who I am. And it’s from Germany, so I’m hoping to make it big there someday,” he added with a smile.
After graduating from Berklee in 2006, Max came to Portland and began playing jazz gigs regularly. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he was already sowing the seeds of what would become the Max Ribner Band. “I used to play in a sushi bar in 2008 and that’s when the MRB tracks started forming. I was writing a ton by the piano and I started putting the quartet together: first drums, bass, keys, and then a guitar came in, and then a horn.” Ribner’s secret weapon, in fact, may be his brother Tim, who handles the keys. “Tim’s been by my side for a while. He’s great at accompaniment,” Max said. Brother Tim, a graduate of the New School, also plays a role in composing the band’s songs. “I’ll write the majority of a song but then Tim will come in at at end and suggest new directions. The parts he comes up with have a really cool jazz-gospel vibe.”
This fraternal partnership came to full fruition on the band’s second album Leap to Flame, which was released in 2014. The name for the album comes from a quote passed down from Ribner’s grandfather, which itself originated from an anonymous poem. The relevant verse reads: Do something more than make a noise / Let your purpose leap into flame / As you plunge with a cry, ‘I shall do or die,’ / Then you will be playing the game.” It’s obvious from listening to Leap to Flame that Ribner has found his purpose. It’s a heady mix of jazz, gospel, funk, R&B, spoken word, and other genres that somehow manages to sound classic and fresh at the same time.
For Ribner, music is about far more than entertainment. Used correctly, it’s a tool, a kind of spiritual glue that binds people together and help us move past obstacles in our lives. “Our lead singer has this thing she says: am I singing to impress people or singing to bless people? The band knows the answer: we are here to bless the people. That’s not a preachy thing either – it’s about inspiration and empowerment. One of my main goals is for someone to hear a melody or some lyric that we said and take it home and bring it into their life. For me that’s me doing my job as an artist,” Ribner said.
As evidenced by last July’s Leap To Flame Dream Show at PSU, Ribner dreams big. The Dream Show involved storytellers, choreographers, and other assorted musicians coming together with the MRB to create a one-time performance of the Leap to Flame tracks that celebrated diversity and equality. “I love diversity,” Ribner said, “and I love how music can really showcase that.” He told me that the concept for the show is based on the Native American medicine wheel. “Our music is pretty special because it can tell a story, and in the case of the dream show it was like we were rekindling some old tradition that used to be part of America and teaching it in a modern way, you know, blending it back to diversity. Because that’s the thing – it’s not about us living like the Native Americans did, it’s about honoring that way of life and acknowledging that there are people who walked here before us. It’s about how can we move forward without shunning their ways and this isn’t just Native American culture, either. This is about all cultures and how we can incorporate them and share in their teachings.”
Besides being the leader of the Max Ribner Band, Ribner also plays with a number of local musicians, many of whom are also connected with national and international touring acts. These includes the neo-soul artist Liv Warfield (one of Prince’s backup singers), and friend Nahko, whose band Medicine for the People inspired Ribner to start his own project. Yet there’s another aspect to what Ribner’s doing that deserves special mention: his role as a youth mentor. While “sprinting through some grass,” as he puts it, Ribner was overcome by a single irresistible imperative: teach the youth. Over the next seven months, Ribner worked on music and self-empowerment with local kids at his Portland home. The fruit of these labors was the album Wolf Pak, a joint collaboration between the MRB and their younger peers; in fact, many of these same kids also participated in the Dream Show and can be seen in the video of that performance.
Ribner told me that his mother once said, “Sometimes I feel bad because I encouraged you about music and I see how hard the struggle is.” If the last year is any indication, that struggle may be starting to pay off. “Music is a powerful force and it has that potential to influence in a good way but in a negative way too,” Ribner said, channelling The Republic. “We have to be really conscious of what we’re putting out there and that’s where I revert back to this positivity. I can get on stage and say I’m going through this really hard thing but it’s all about where do we want to go from here, and that’s how music can be this healing force. You can get a paycheck at the end of the show and it’s cool and I mean we welcome more of that, but as for me internally that’s what I’m looking for. It’s not all about the positivity, either. Life is this neverending positive and negative and we’re always working with this duality. My main thing i want to bring this positive emotion and energy and motion to the crowd. I’m human and we all experience darkness and shadows but the question is how do we want to grow from it.”
Thomas Dietzel – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor