Ralph Hepola, Springfield, MO
The virtuoso tuba player leads his quartet through a set of his freewheeling originals, playing with remarkable fluency as the lead instrument.
While the tuba has often been stereotyped as a limited instrument that keeps time in marching bands, Dixieland and polka groups, Ralph Hepola on “Tuba” makes a strong case for his horn being the lead voice in a modern jazz combo. A brilliant player with extensive experience playing classical music, Hepola is also a creative improvising musician who has little difficulty swinging his large instrument.
“ Tuba” has Hepola in the role often reserved for a trumpet or saxophone, heading a quartet with Peter Shu or Mark Asche on piano and electric keyboards, bassist Daniel Arlig, and drummer David Stanoch, with two guest appearances by guitarist Peter Lothringer. The group performs a set mostly comprised of the tubist’s inventive and diverse originals.
On “Roots And Wings”, Hepola interacts with the lightly funky rhythms played by his sidemen. “Clarion Call” (which uses the same chord changes as Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa”) features the leader swinging with the group. He plays some impressively fast runs on “Hepmobile,” hints at the theme from the “Summer of ‘42” on his warm ballad “Blue Moment,” and sounds quite comfortable and natural playing bebop on “Phraseology”.
Hepola also plays the blues on the swinging “Ralph’s Riff” and the lowdown “Incoming Blues,” introduces colorful originals in “Through The Wringer” and the catchy “American Landscape”, and for a change of pace performs three traditional Celtic melodies (“Black-Eyed Susan”, “Scottish Lullaby” and “Mary, Young and Fair”) that are not normally showcases for the tuba.
Ralph Hepola was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, studied piano, and switched to the tuba when he was twelve. While in high school he worked with the Minnesota Orchestra and after graduation he won a position with the United States Army Band of Washington, D.C. After earning his music degree at Northwestern University, Hepola worked with the Basel Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland for five years, performed in the Vienna Philharmonic, and was featured as a soloist on Swiss Radio. He freelanced in New York City with a variety of jazz and classical ensembles before resettling in Minnesota.
In his career thus far, Ralph Hepola has appeared on over forty recordings and twenty-five video productions, performed for national tours of Broadway shows, and led two major groups: Route 3 (described as an American musical journey) and HepTones which performs music ranging from classics to contemporary jazz.
With the release of “Tuba”, Ralph Hepola shows that not only is his instrument worthy of being a lead voice in jazz, but that he is one of the finest tuba players on the scene today.
by Scott Yanow
The tuba, like the banjo and the accordion, has sometimes had an image problem during the past century. While it has had an important role in classical music and early New Orleans jazz, the tuba has often been associated with Dixieland, amateur bands, and comedy. There have been exceptions such as its use in the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet, Gil Evans’ groups, and Howard Johnson’s tuba ensemble Gravity. There have also been around a dozen impressive tuba players in modern jazz, but those accomplishments have sometimes been overshadowed by the stereotype. However Ralph Hepola’s recent CD, simply called Tuba, makes a strong case for the use of the tuba as the lead instrument in a jazz quartet with piano, bass and drums.
“I’m very well aware,” says Hepola, "that although the tuba has been around in jazz since New Orleans, it is very unusual for a tuba to be leading a group of this type, but I want to give this a shot. Tuba is really the peak of what I have done so far.” For the groundbreaking project, he used some of the top jazz musicians from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area: pianist Peter Shu, bassist Daniel Arlig, drummer David Stanoch and, as a guest on two songs, guitarist Peter Lothringer. “I’ve known Peter Shu since 2007 and I have been working with the other guys since 2010, they are all great players. What I wanted to do with the recording was to show all of the different things that I can do on the tuba, and demonstrate the potential of the instrument while making good music.”
The songs on Tuba cover a wide range of styles including fusion (“Roots And Wings”), a Latin jazz song based on Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” (“Clarion Call”), the fast modal tune “Hepmobile,” the ballad “Blue Moment,” swinging bebop (“Phraseology”), a blues (“Ralph’s Riff”), a soulful song that would have been fit perfectly on a 1960s Blue Note album (“Through The Winger”), an old-fashioned blues with Hammond B3 organ (“Incoming Blues”), three Celtic Aires from Ireland and Scotland that are a bit reminiscent of the folk/jazz music that the jazz ensemble Oregon performed, and the rock/fusion song “American Landscape.” Ralph Hepola’s tuba somehow sounds natural in all of these different styles, playing with the creativity and power of a trumpet or trombone but in his own personal voice.
Ralph Hepola was born and raised in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis & St. Paul, Minnesota. He remembers seeing Louis Armstrong perform at the end of his career, and he enjoyed hearing gems from his father’s large record collection of jazz, classical and pop music. While he sang in school and started studying piano when he was eight, he switched course completely at the age of 12. “I wanted to play trumpet in my school’s band program but the music teacher already had plenty of trumpet players. I was told that if I took up the tuba and got good enough, I could switch to trumpet. But within a few days I had fallen in love with the tuba so I never switched. I also soon figured out that if I got good enough on an instrument that kids didn’t want to play like the tuba, there would be many more opportunities for me in the future. That’s how it worked out.”
Hepola joined the Musicians Union when he was 17 so he could work with the Minnesota Orchestra whenever they played a piece that needed two tuba players. He auditioned successfully for the United States Army Band and spent three years performing with the ensemble in Washington D.C. He met the legendary Arnold Jacobs who was the principal tubaist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 44 years, taking influential and inspirational lessons with him. Hepola remembers with affection his period studying at Northwestern University where most of the brass teachers were members of the Chicago Symphony. Branching out from classical music, he played with the Jazz Ensemble I band, being featured on a Milcho Leviev piece. After graduating, the young tuba virtuoso became a member of the Basel Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland, staying five years and also performing with the Vienna Philharmonic.
“I didn’t want to be a foreigner for the rest of my life,” he remembers, “and I wanted to pursue other kinds of music beyond orchestral music including jazz and rock. I had been fascinated with improvisation since I was a kid, so I moved to New York City where I spent 1986-88 as a freelance musician.” During that period he played at the 55 Club several times and performed in a wide variety of settings including with traditional jazz groups, having his first gigs as a leader.
Returning to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Ralph Hepola went on tour with the Minnesota Orchestra (including performing at Lincoln Center), played in numerous operas, appeared with nationally touring versions of Broadway shows (including The Lion King, Parade, and Ragtime), and made many orchestral recordings. But he had the goal of playing the tuba as a lead instrument in a jazz group, and he worked towards making his dream a reality.
Hepola, who appeared at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival for four years in a row, led two bands in Minneapolis. Route 3 (which is no longer active) was a traditional jazz group with a strong tenor banjo player and a female singer, while HepTones is a quartet with his tuba in the lead. He recorded with both bands including a CD in which the two contrasting groups were both featured.
With the help of a grant awarded by the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council, Hepola was able to record Tuba which is available as both a CD and a digital download. Tuba, which features him leading HepTones, is his strongest recording to date and shows just what a tuba can do, at least when played by an artist on his level.
Ralph Hepola, who recently moved with his wife to Missouri, looks forward to the future with enthusiasm. “I’m going full speed ahead as an improvising tuba player. I plan to record again soon and I look forward to performing at more clubs, jazz festivals and arts center with my quartet, doing some regional touring. It has been a rewarding life so far and I want to make a real contribution to the music, seeing what the music world thinks of the tuba as a lead instrument.”
by Scott Yanow
Veteran tuba master Ralph Hepola creates a dynamic, supremely soulful new lead voice for the idiom on his eclectic debut album “Tuba”.
by Jonathan Widran
Jonathan Widran is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Jazziz Magazine, All Music Guide, Music Connection, iTunes, Billboard.com, Amazon.com, and Singer/Songwriter Universe.
Invented in both its bass and tenor forms in the 1830s by instrument builders Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht, Johann Gottfried Moritz and Johann’s son Carl Wilhelm Moritz, the tuba played a prominent role over the next century in the works of Strauss, Stravinsky, Wagner, Prokofiev, Brahms, Gershwin and others. Having played for several years with the Basel Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland and in the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Music Festival in Austria as part of a five-year stint in Europe earlier in his career, Ralph Hepola is well acquainted with the classical and symphonic applications of his chosen horn and lifelong passion. Yet as he prepares to release Tuba, his eclectic jazz and blues driven independent debut album, the veteran tubist points out that his instrument has a colorful history as well serving as the bass part in historic jazz ensembles – starting with Louis Armstrong’s groups and other prominent New Orleans groups, including The Eureka Brass Band and the Young Tuxedo Brass Band in the 1950s.
“It’s played a prominent role over the years for numerous legendary icons, including Stan Kenton, Gil Evans, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, who had Bill Barber play on several albums, including the sessions compiled as Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead, says the St. Paul, Minnesota born and raised Ralph, who subsequent to his time overseas freelanced in NYC for two years with various jazz and classical ensembles. “Then there’s New York-based tubist Howard Johnson, who played with Mingus and Kirk but more prominently, George Gruntz and Gil Evans. People are drawn to the tuba’s warm, lush and mellow sound, which creates a beautiful contrast to the edgier sounds of more traditional brass instruments like trumpet and trombone.”
With the exception of Johnson (who released three albums on Verve in the 90s), Bob Stewart (four albums in the 80s and 2000s) and Joseph Daley (four indie releases in the 2010s), jazz tubists have for the most part continued in their side/soloist slots rather than as leaders helming their own albums. Now retired from his several decade career as a sideman and touring musician, Ralph boldly aims to change all that with his powerhouse ensemble collection reflecting a stylistically multi-faceted aesthetic he dubs “21st Century Solo Tuba.” The 12 track collection features longtime associates Peter Shu (piano and keyboards), Daniel Artig (acoustic and electric basses) and David Stanoch (drums and percussion), with guest appearances by pianist/keyboardist Mark Asche and blues guitarist Peter Lothringer.
Gearing up for the release Tuba with an eye towards booking club and festival dates this summer, Ralph is building his presence on social media, including platforms on Jazz Corner, Last Row Music, YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and Bandcamp. His page on All About Jazz has 24,000 views and includes high praise from Fiona Ord-Shrimpton, Editor/Curator of the site’s Track of the Day, who says of the album’s vibey, easy flowing soul-jazz flavored opener “Roots & Wings”: “Tu like a tuba, fufu like a funker and gro like a groover. This tune has Herbie fusion magic all over it.”
From there, Tuba finds Ralph taking us on a journey through all the musical loves of his life, starting with “Clarion Call,” a whimsical emotionally compelling Latin jazz romp that utilizes the chord progression of trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa.” As an aside, Ralph explains in his colorful liner notes, “A clarion was a type of trumpet during the Middle Ages. Incidentally, the Latin word for trumpet is tuba.”
He follows that with the atmospheric and sonically offbeat, fast modal tune “Hepmobile,” whose title is an ode to the classic Hupmobile to reflect the idea that the piece is a solo vehicle for tuba, sans solos by other band members. Showcasing the dynamic chemistry between Ralph and Mark Asche, “Blue Moment” is a brief but impactful tuba/piano ballad that the tubist first played at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, which he performed each year from 2012-2015. The appropriately titled “Phraseology” is a spirited and swinging, high fallutin’ bebop tune that Ralph developed out of unique rhythm changes he created first. In the spirit of heroes like Sonny Rollins, whom Ralph recalls would record twenty choruses on a track, he features multiple choruses – and then trades fours with his fellow musicians.
Tuba then enters blues territory, with the tubist first drawing on his extensive experience as a sideman in the genre in duet with Lothringer on the raw, down home tunes “Ralph’s Riff” and “Through the Wringer.” He then fashions a darkly seductive horn melody over Shu’s gospel-tinged Hammond B-3 organ on the minor key ballad “Incoming Blues”; Shu’s hypnotic solo is a highlight.
Ralph shares a more sensitive, lyrical side of his artistry on three rarely-heard moody, immersive folkloric songs (“Black Eyed Susan”, “Scottish Lullaby” and “Mary, Young and Fair”) that cumulatively form a suite of traditional Celtic airs. These tracks featuring some of Ralph’s gentlest melodic tones over Shu’s graceful old school Rhodes vibe; Daniel Arlig’s plucky bass solo on the third song is a gem. The collection wraps with the slowly rumbling, old school soul-jazz funk/swing tune “American Landscape,” inspired by the American Landscape School of Painters who flourished between 1820 and 1880. According to Ralph’s notes, “Adventuresome and entrepreneurial, they painted scenes of incredible natural beauty on very large canvasses.”
“It’s very all over the map stylistically,” Ralph says whimsically, “but if you look at contemporary jazz, there are many artists on traditional instruments like piano, sax and trumpet who create recordings that have a Latin jazz tune followed by some bebop, a slow ballad and blues. It’s fun playing all these different rhythmic changes throughout and for me makes for a successful overall program. I see it like a concert experience that’s fast one minute, slow the next, touching all areas that comprise contemporary and traditional jazz. I play in seven different styles here. The only difference is, I’m making it happen with the tuba.”
“When I put together my rhythm section, I chose each member based on my idea to give them plenty of space to solo, like Miles once gave Coltrane, and Chet Baker used to give his ensembles,” he adds. “I know the tuba’s got a whole different sound, and I don’t want to shove it down people’s throats. I love the interactive spirit of this project. I enjoy serving as a foil for other players, maybe playing the head on a tune, a solo and a few choruses before opening it to their ideas.”
Considering his instinctive way with melodies, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that growing up in Bloomington, Minnesota, Ralph played piano initially before picking up the tuba at age twelve. “I was a quiet and introverted kid,” he says, “and as a gangly twelve-year-old, I was attracted to this big macho instrument – something harder to play and hold – that would make a different kind of statement. I thought if I took it up and excelled at it, there would be more opportunities for me as a musician compared to all the competition I would have among the many trumpeters and million sax and piano players out there.”
It didn’t take long for those notions to become reality. At seventeen, Ralph was chosen to play before the British Royal Family in the Manitoba All-Province Band at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada. While still in high school, he began performing as an extra musician with the Minnesota Orchestra, which later included recordings and tours to Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City. During his teens, he also earned a position with The United States Army Band of Washington, D.C. At age twenty, he won a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music in the Young Artist Competition of the Minnesota Orchestra/WAMSO.
Ralph earned his music degree at Northwestern University where he studied with renowned musician and teacher Arnold Jacobs, whose career included forty-four years as Principal Tubaist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At Northwestern, Ralph played and soloed with Jazz Ensemble I, which twice won Best Big Band at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival. Winning an international audition for the Basel Symphony Orchestra changed Ralph’s life. During his time in Europe, he played with renowned conductors Pierre Boulez, Antal Dorati, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, and Lorin Maazel.
Over the years, Ralph built an impressive career whose eclecticism lays the foundation for his current emergence as a solo artist. He can be heard on forty recordings – including ones for EMI and Warner Bros. - as well as twenty-eight video productions. He has also performed for national tours of Broadway shows at the State and Orpheum Theatres in Minneapolis and Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. He has played performances of seventy-three different operas in ninety-eight opera productions with fifteen different musical organizations in the United States and Europe.
Ralph’s success in his home state earned him numerous accolades. The Southwest Minnesota Arts Council awarded him an Individual Artist Career Grant in 2017, while the Minnesota State Arts Board bestowed highly-competitive Artist Initiative Grants for both 2010 and 2012. In addition to completing a seven-week residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation (awarded internationally) in the esteemed arts community of Taos, New Mexico, he performed at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina which “is internationally recognized as America's premier performing arts festival”; the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis, which is North America’s largest theatre for young people and their families; and the Guthrie Theater, the nation’s largest regional theater.
“I’m really grateful for the unique career I have had and the opportunity to engage in so many different recorded and live projects and work with some of the greatest musicians in the world,” says Ralph. “Some tubists are content playing for years in a single orchestra, and retiring on a great pension. My teacher Arnold Jacobs played in the Chicago Symphony till he was seventy-two! But I guess I’m cut from a different cloth. I feel there is a lot of great music inside me still and I enjoy the challenge of writing and composing new material and showcasing the tuba in ways many people haven’t yet experienced. Now that I have the chance to pursue that dream, I’m excited about the opportunity to give it a shot.”
by Jonathan Widran