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Sound choices for Ross Kribbs

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Ross Kribbs has been a bit torn between musical styles for the past several years.

The Aspenite has long held a deep appreciation for the cleanness and technical precision of classical violin. But he has also cultivated a growing fondness for various aspects of bluegrass fiddling: the rhythmic role it fills, the gritty sound and, especially, the improvisatory nature of the style.

The dilemma is settled, at least for this weekend, with Kribbs finding something of a middle ground in … jazz. Symphony in the Valley’s Symphony Swing concerts will feature Kribbs leading a small combo in a performance of “Swing 42,” a tune by guitarist Django Reinhardt that featured Reinhardt’s partner in the Hot Club of France, violinist Stephane Grappelli.

Kribbs may continue to follow the late French violinist beyond this weekend. Grappelli’s playing ” most famously in the Hot Club, the 1930s European swing group, but also with partners including David Grisman and Oscar Peterson, Yo-Yo Ma and Yehudi Menuhin ” combines the qualities of classical and bluegrass that Kribbs is looking for.

“Looking at the Grappelli stuff, that’s the direction I really want to go with the violin,” said Kribbs, a 32-year-old resident of Hunter Creek. “It combines a lot of elements of improvisation in bluegrass, but also the opportunity for a little more refined technique. It’s a wide range of styles that are appropriate” in Grappelli’s playing.

Kribbs is one of many musicians featured in Symphony in the Valley’s Symphony Swing concerts, which are set for tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, and Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Battlement Mesa Activity Center in Battlement Mesa.

(The first event includes dinner and dancing; the second, a wine-and-cheese reception with dancing.) The annual concerts ” which took a year off last year so the organization could participate in Aspen Community Theatre’s 30th anniversary show ” return with a roster that includes vocal groups the Rat Pack and the Sirens, plus soloists Lorraine Curry, Debbie Dawson, Krista Espelien, John Goss, Kelly Thompson, Terra Vestrand and Jeannie Walla. Even Wendy Larson, Symphony in the Valley’s music director and conductor, will take a vocal turn in the swing-oriented performances, singing, appropriately, “Unexpected Song,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Song and Dance.”

For a bunch of years, Ross Kribbs had no trouble deciding on what style of music to focus. In his college years at Brown University in Rhode Island, he didn’t play at all, a decision he regrets.

As a kid, Kribbs could hardly get enough of the violin. He studied what he calls “the whole Suzuki thing,” referring to the widespread teaching method for young musicians. His high school, in central Pennsylvania, had no strings program, so his playing was confined to small combos. Still, he managed to play in district, regional and all-state orchestras, and the experience was profound: “It was kind of bizarre, not playing in a large ensemble till I was 14 or 15. And then getting in the orchestras ” even tuning was a cool, hair-raising experience, with 40, 50 other musicians.” For his junior year of high school, Kribbs moved to South Carolina to live with his father and attended a high school that did have a strings program, which he joined.

At Brown, Kribbs focused on urban planning, with vague ideas of becoming an architect. He also devoted himself to the school’s social life, and the violin didn’t seem to fit in with the persona he was projecting.

“In college, there’s the cool factor, and violin, maybe that’s not terribly cool,” he said. “I took it out twice in four years, and it was pretty brutal sounding. And that’s a shame. I might have done better romantically in college if the violin had collected a little less dust.”

After a year back in Pennsylvania, where he worked as a photographer for a newspaper, Kribbs moved to Aspen in 1999 to take a job as photographer with The Aspen Times. Almost immediately, he was lured back into music and it was, in fact, a romantic liaison that returned him to the violin. In Aspen he ran into a high school friend from South Carolina, and though he called her the wrong name ” she was a twin, and Kribbs guessed wrong ” the two began dating. A violist, she was in Aspen to attend the Aspen Music School, and Kribbs was pulled into her circle of classical players.

His reacquaintance was blocked not by notions of personal image, but by a physical problem. Mysteriously, Kribbs had developed a powerful sensitivity to sound, and the violin, with its proximity to the ear, was not an option.

Rather than put down music altogether again, he simply switched instruments. Back in Pennsylvania waited his grandfather’s old mandolin ” of the ‘tater bug variety, so named because its rounded back resembled the potato beetle. Happy to discover that the mandolin had identical tuning to the violin, Kribbs took some lessons from local bluegrass icon Sandy Munro and enrolled in a Munro’s bluegrass course at Colorado Mountain College.

“So I returned to music, but through the bluegrass realm,” said Kribbs. After several years playing mostly on his own, he became a regular at the Tuesday-night jam sessions at Hunter Creek. The atmosphere ” “beers and bluegrass” ” suited him, as did the sound. “Almost always there was an upright bass, which makes everything else sound great. It’s a great low-key way to spend an evening.”

While Kribbs devoted himself to mandolin, a fiddle would usually be floating around the circle. Kribbs would pick it up, but only occasionally, and tentatively, not wanting to cross his background in classical violin with his efforts at bluegrass mandolin. But a smaller combo, the Smuggler Mountain Boys, was emerging from the pickup jam sessions, and the group needed a fiddler, not a mandolinist. “So I broke down a personal barrier there,” said Kribbs, who plays fiddle in the Smuggler Mountain Boys’ alternate-Thursdays gig at the Double Dog Pub.

Around the same time that he joined the Tuesday-night picking parties, Kribbs also decided to test out a return to classical music. With his aural sensitivity somewhat improved, and armed with good earplugs, he signed on with the Glenwood Springs-based Symphony in the Valley. He has wandered around a bit in the violin section, putting in some time as concertmaster and playing a solo on “Meditation,” from the Massenet opera “Thais.”

The problem then became not too much music, exactly, but having to sort out various styles.

“You’ve got classical training, and you don’t want to break that,” said Kribbs, whose day job is photographer for Aspen Architectural Photography, a two-man operation which he co-owns. (He also has an ongoing artistic project, making a photo book of the Susquehanna River, which flows near where he grew up in Pennsylvania.) “You don’t want to break the things that make a good [bluegrass] sound either. You want some grit to the music. You don’t want to sound like Josh Bell playing bluegrass. But you don’t want to be sloppy. And that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. I get smirks from the band if what I’m playing is too clean, or sounds too classical.”

Kribbs may be dedicating himself to the jazz solution. But he doesn’t plan on giving up either classical, in Symphony in the Valley and the Aspen Choral Society Orchestra, or bluegrass, in the Hunter Creek jam sessions or the Smuggler Mountain Boys. But he has decided that his limitations as a violinist ” “I realize at this point, I won’t be as good as the 14-year-olds who are here in the summertime,” he said ” are more severe than those as a bluegrass or jazz fiddler. And then there is the fascination with improvising.

“The whole notion of improvising is crazy,” he said, sounding very much like the Suzuki student he was. “You definitely get better by practicing it, but you don’t know what you’re going to play till the solo gets passed to you. You’re going into things blind. And it’s either great or it’s not, it’s either there or it’s not, and you don’t know where that comes from. It’s just internalizing the music.

“If you listen to Grappelli play, you don’t ever hear him do the same thing twice.”

Kribbs has been listening to Grappelli intently ” and watching him, via clips on YouTube. He also transposes solos and composes solos of his own to practice, reads books on jazz violin, and watches instructional DVDs. A favorite contemporary model is California fiddler Darol Anger, who plays bluegrass and jazz. “He strikes that balance impeccably, and sounds authentic without being sloppy,” said Kribbs.

The current lament is that his mandolin is now mostly neglected. This time, however, it’s because Kribbs is occupied with another instrument and other musical challenges ” a far better situation than when he was neglecting music entirely.

“I have a theory that there are some things that are always worthwhile, and playing music is one of them,” said Kribbs. “It’s always time well-spent. You never think, ‘Boy, I wish I hadn’t spent those few hours playing music with those guys last night.’ It inherently puts you in contact with interesting people. It’s people who have consciously chosen not to sit on the couch and watch TV, or make small talk at the Caribou Club.”


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