Born of a free-flowing foundation of meditative melodic mantras, the new Max Ribner release, 1st Language, patiently unfurls into an intoxicating joyride. A record that reaches far beyond fusion jazz, gospel, R&B or rare groove; a global elixir that colors just a bit outside the lines and defies the boundaries of what we maybe thought possible—at least for an independent project of this nature. Ribner boldly connects with masterful musicians from cultures around the world to reveal a spiritual sum greater than its star-studded parts.
Max Ribner first conceived of this ambitious project by way of an innocuous conversation about the universal language of music. Over time, the idea mutated and extrapolated into a two-year journey incorporating more than fifty intercontinental performers. Portland, Oregon’s resident trumpet/flugelhorn specialist, Ribner is the captain of a multi-hued musical spaceship of inspired musical storytelling. Welcome to the wondrous galaxies of 1st Language…
1st Language was created by an all-star team including—but not limited to—a sturdy rhythm section, bombastic ten-piece horn section, a cinematic 12-piece string section, and a soaring eight-person gospel choir. For the “Not Free” video single, Ribner was joined by a rollicking ten-piece dance troupe hailing from as far away as Ghana, Africa, or right there in our own political hotbed of Portland, OR. This record is definitively “world music,” but at the same time, it represents so much more than just a globalized genre or lame-duck label. This art is a veritable soundtrack to the struggle.
Max Ribner – 1st Language – Album Cover
Ribner is joined by an astonishing assembly of instrumentalists and singers on 1st Language. Some of the more familiar personnel include keyboardist Bobby Sparks II (Roy Hargrove, Snarky Puppy), guitarist Mark Lettieri (Snarky Puppy, The Fearless Flyers) vocalist/keyboardist Jarrod Lawson, bassist Sharay Reed (Chaka Khan, Kirk Franklin), vocalist Saeeda Wright (Prince), Steve Watkins (Allen Stone, Swatkins & the Positive Agenda), virtuoso bassist Garrett Sayers (The Motet), Ron Artis II, and Elijah Ray, among dozens of other talented collaborators. Jans Ingber (formerly of The Motet) contributed percussion to several numbers, and co-produced the effort alongside Ribner.
“It was a beast of an endeavor. We enlisted some nasty cats to bring this to life,” Ingber explained he reflected on Ribner’s vision and the recording process.
Eighteen months deep into the writing, arranging, and tracking, the now-promising project caught the attention of Grammy-winning engineer Ben Kane, who has worked alongside Russell Elevado for projects with high-profile artists like D’angelo, PJ Morton, and Emily King. Ingber, Ribner and Kane came together at the engineer’s analog studio Electric Gardens for the mixing sessions.
Watkins, a vibrant musical force of nature who also called the Portland scene home base for some time, was among several keyboard wizards to bless up 1st Language. “Max Ribner did an amazing job carrying out this vision of music,” Watkins raved, “not just our first language as individual human beings, but also tying in this unfolding narrative that hits our ancestral story-telling roots.”
Amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the ever-widening political and cultural divides, Ribner’s concept, intention, and focus did not waver, and 1st Language finally came to fruition in late 2020. This music is medicinal and potent for the people, a soundtrack in solidarity with the ongoing movement for equality and inclusion. As such, Ribner sees 1st Language as “a sonic calling together of our collective humanity.”
“Max is a very pure musical creature,” Watkins continued. “His generative flow-state output caught a beautiful thread with this record. It wound its way from Max through all these ace players and was coaxed and guided by [co-producer] Jans Ingber and [engineer] Ben Kane.”
Courtesy of Rudy Gutierrez, the visionary cover art for 1st Language is an introspective portrayal of this sound document as a living organism. This album attempts to run the gamut of genre gymnastics, percolating across historic cultures and cooking up contemporary flavors, the grooves traversing the globe and coalescing its inhabitants with respectful reverence and celebratory flair.
The magnanimous title track comes in hot right out of the gate—a curiously potent blend of gospelized Soulquarians groove with a bluesy, throwback trumpet solo that nods to the late, great Roy Hargrove, then gives way to Portishead-gone-gospel, a heartache brimming with deep intonations and ethereal vibes. 1st Language boasts very unique pairings of styles and sounds, laying a foundation for taking big chances—and sticking the landings—throughout the entire 11-track record.
Coming in unaware, it’s not immediately nor audibly apparent that the trumpeter serves as a traditional bandleader; it feels more like an ensemble, a village of musicians intimately familiar with one another from across the moonlit miles and wide open seas. Max Ribner dreams big and goes huge, and his ambition is a rallying cry heard round the world.
Ribner puts his collaborators out front to shine, and swims upstream; he lets the songs—not the solos—do the real talking. Sonically, as well as conceptually, the material sounds like a second cousin in the Snarky Puppy family tree (no surprise with some of the participants involved), yet 1st Language stands on its own as Mad Max makes an impact with his latest LP.
“Not Free” is an undeniable scorcher that leads with a sashaying Afrobeat groove, JB’s horn blasts, and staccato, quiet storm guitars. With sweeping tempo changes and a tribalized battle cry as his motif, Max can’t help but show out on this afro-futuristic banger, yet he still leaves room for celestial strings and a minimalist rhythm to rumble beneath. The poignant vocals are right on time, addressing the systemic racism in mass incarceration and tracing the narrative back to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade over four hundred years ago. There are samples of soliloquies of (what sounds like?) Malcolm X woven into the politically-poetic stanzas, before the band takes a hard left into what sounds reminiscent of Stu Zender-era Jamiroquai—seafaring soul-jazz with a conscience.
Max Ribner – “Not Free” (Official Video) – Music From 1st Language
[Video: Max Ribner]
Portland soul singer extraordinaire Jarred Lawson was another renowned artist of the Pacific Northwest to be tapped for this particular project. As Lawson wrote on his social media channels, “I am extremely honored to have been involved, if only in a very small way. Max has poured his heart and soul into this record and it shows as the final product is really something special.”
Max and his peoples are clearly fond of greasy Crescent City rhythms and buoyant brass band funk. “Honey” is chock-full of a swaggering NOLA Second Line steez. “Yes Please” is a call-and-response synthesis of glory-to-God gospel and stank-funk Go-Go, a song native to both a church pew and the District. The cut is peppered with a spicy P-Funk bowl-pack, and a sliver of Voodoo vibe lurking in the shadows. “The ?s” rides out on some fatback funk with a Twin Cities twist before flying the Mothership all the way across the pond to Space Cowboy central, with Roy Ayers sittin’ shotgun.
“1Step” is early-’90s proto-breakbeat acid jazz spiked with New Jack Swing on lean—DJ Krush and the Brand New Heavies would be mighty proud. It’s possibly ironic in intention as well as criminally-brief, but trust, that sh*t slaps in the whip. “Thank You” steers the ship back to the Bayou with a full band Second Line redux, complete with a spirited gospel crescendo that acts as a proper dopamine blast to the brain and fills the heart with an intangible abundance. “Begin Again” is a hypnotic coda that acts as the softest of landings, after what is nothing if not an exuberant, trans-continental excursion.
Listen to the album in its entirety below via Spotify and click below to check out the full list of personnel featured on 1st Language. For more on Max Ribner, head here.
1st Language (Max Ribner) – Personnel
Max Ribner – Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Keys, Vocals
Bobby Ray Sparks II — Rhodes, Organ, Piano, Clav, Moog, Arp
Sharay Reed — Bass (1,5,7,10,11)
Mark Lettieri — Guitar (1,2,5,10,11)
Jarrod Lawson — Vocals, Rhodes, Synth (1,6)
Steve Watkins — Rhodes, Synth, Guitar (3,9)
Chaun Horton — Drums (1,2,10)
Saeeda Wright — Vocals – (1,2,5,10)
Alonzo Chadwick — Vocals (1,2,5,10)
Ron Artis II — Vocals (5)
Elijah Ray — Guitar, Bass (1,2,11)
Jans Ingber — AUX Percussion (1,2,4,5,6,10,11)
Brian Foxworth — Drums (5,6,11)
Richard Lawrence — Drums (3)
Joshua “Jams” Marotta — Drums (4)
Tim Ribner — Piano (1,6,10)
Michael Elson — Rhodes (5,6)
Marquay Seamster — Bass (3,9)
Garrett Sayers — Bass (6)
Samuel Eisen-meyers — Guitar (1)
Lamont Williams — Vocals (5,10)
Emmanuel Henreid — Vocals (5,10)
Lashell Harris — Vocals (1,5,10)
Arietta Ward — Vocals (5,10)
Jon Ramm — Trombone (4,5,6,10)
Edward ’JUICY’ Jackson — Trombone (4,5,10)
Eric Gordon — Trumpet (4,5,10)
Devin Phillips — Soprano Sax (4)
Javan Carter — Tuba (4,5,10)
Charlie Porter — Trumpet (6,10)
Jon Moke — Trombone (6,10)
TJ Schaper — Trombone (1)
Kelley Elliott — French Horn (6)
Kurt Heichelheim— French Horn (6)
Tim Snider – Violins, Violas (1,2)
Christopher Fotinakis — Violin (1,6,10)
Marian Gutierrez — Violin (1,6,10)
Mitchell Drury — Violin (1,6,10)
Elisa Rega — Violin (1,6,10)
Amanda Lawrence — Viola (1,6,10)
Tricia Bogdan — Viola (1,6,10)
Timothée Berte-Renou— Cello (1,6,10)
Amelia Hunnicutt — Cello (1,6,10)
Sara Barbee — Upright Bass (1,6,10)
Joe Kye — Conducting (1,6,10)
Doug Good Feather — Spoken (9)
Katherine Allen — Spoken (4)
Produced by Max Ribner & Jans Ingber
Mixed by Ben Kane — Electric Garden, Brooklyn, NY
Mastered by Will Quinell — Sterling Sound, Edgewater, NJ
Artwork by Rudy Gutierrez