Christian Tamburr is building a new music legacy in the Triangle
BY KURT DUSTERBERG | PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHRISTIAN TAMBURR
Christian Tamburr’s sense of humor comes in handy in his professional life. The Apex resident and accomplished musician has played in more than 60 countries alongside legendary performers and with his namesake quintet. It makes a great conversation starter until he reveals that he’s a vibraphonist, leaving some people to wonder if he plays in a symphony or, perhaps, with “Weird Al” Yankovic.
As Tamburr relaxes in his home production studio, he notes the makeup of the Christian Tamburr Quintet, pointing out that “there’s a drum, there’s a bass”—then he tilts his head toward his instrument—“and there’s whatever people think that thing is.”
The vibraphone is the more sophisticated cousin of the xylophone. Rather than short, staccato sounds, the vibraphone produces longer notes and melodies that lend the percussion instrument not only to jazz, but also classical music. It takes just seconds to understand Tamburr’s virtuosity when he picks up the mallets, sometimes four at once, and makes them dance across the metal bars.
Tamburr, who has recorded six jazz albums, grew up in Merritt Island, Florida, playing a guitar given to him by his father and a baby grand piano he inherited from a great aunt. By the time he discovered the vibraphone in the eighth grade jazz band, there was no turning back. At 14, he was playing jam sessions with accomplished musicians, eventually joining a band called Swingerhead that recorded a hit pop song, “Pick Up The Phone,” in 1998. “We were just in the right time and right place,” Tamburr says. “Now I was traveling every other weekend to play [clubs], all while in high school and trying to get math homework done.”
Never content to be just a niche musician, Tamburr cultivated his broader musical interests to become an accomplished piano player, composer and arranger. He has gone on to serve as musical director and pianist for Las Vegas magicians Penn & Teller and renowned Spanish singer-songwriter Julio Iglesias. Along the way, he has provided musical memories in the lives of basketball legend Michael Jordan and actress Julia Roberts.
After seven years in Las Vegas, Tamburr and his family moved to the Triangle in 2019 when his wife, Shaina, accepted a position with Cisco Systems. They have a 7-year-old daughter and an almost-2-year-old son. When not traveling with his quintet, Tamburr composes music for other artists, films and projects. Now, with roots in the Triangle, he has established the Legacy of Jazz Series, bringing some of the country’s top musicians to perform alongside his group at The Cary Theater and Fuquay-Varina Arts Center. Not bad for a guy who says with a smile, “Nobody needs a vibraphonist.”
What was your first big break?
I was 20 going to the University of North Florida, and I got a call saying we need a special guest soloist to feature with a jazz band five nights a week at the Bellagio. I called my parents. I packed up my stuff and drove with my dad in the minivan out to Las Vegas, and was playing at the Bellagio at 20 years old.
At some point, you went from being a sought-after vibraphonist to being a band leader.
I was always the special guest. I never really felt like I was part of the band. So when I was 22 or 23, I started to play my own material. I wanted to have my own band. I could be a sideman and get called for gigs, or I could go be the one who makes the calls. That [became] the Christian Tamburr Quartet, and I had to be there.
I was 24 and I released my first record, called “Move.” A guy reached out to me from Starbucks. They were doing these coffee and jazz gift sets—a CD, a cup, a bag of coffee. I think there were over 150,000 records that went out with the gift sets. My music was everywhere, apparently. That was a huge first step into jazz radio. That was an incredible launching board going into my next record.
How did you wind up working with Penn & Teller?
The second or third night I was playing in Vegas, Penn was hanging out. He was a fan. I didn’t even know I could have a fan like that. We actually became friends. I went to see his show and Penn asked me what I thought. I told him it would be better if Teller played vibraphone in the act. So I taught Teller to play and I started writing music to support their act.
You toured as the pianist with Julio Iglesias, one of the top-selling vocalists in history. How did you get the job?
They called me No. 9 because I was the ninth guy to try to get the gig. The gig is to play the parts exactly the way he wants them, without added embellishments. I realized that very quickly, and I think a lot of guys maybe didn’t want to conform to that.
We went to Lake Charles, Louisiana for the first set of shows. I played the rehearsal and the sound check. But he brings the old musical director (Rafael Ferro) back, and he sits down and plays the show. The next day I played the sound check, and Julio wasn’t liking what I was doing. He goes, “You need to go out and watch my show, and watch Rafa and understand how he plays behind me.”
I flew home after two nights of not playing a single show. I remember thinking, I guess they’re on to No. 10. The next thing I know, I got an email about two months of touring. So I showed up for the first show in Tampa. And over the course of that tour, I learned to adapt and play and understand through mentoring under the music director.
I’ll just throw out two names and you can explain your connections: Julia Roberts and Michael Jordan.
I was 21 years old, playing the Bellagio, and Julia Roberts was filming the movie “Oceans 11” there. Julia Roberts and Danny Moder had their first date listening to our band and danced to our version of “At Last.” For her 40th birthday party, Danny wanted to recreate the moment that they first kindled their relationship and danced to “At Last.” So we flew to New York. The audience was insane. It was Bruce Willis, Kirsten Dunst, James Gandolfini. Julia was hugging us. It was so surreal.
When I lived in Charlotte, we played at Sullivan’s Steakhouse. Michael Jordan would come in frequently. One night he comes up to me and he says, “Do you know the song, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” I said, “Yeah, I think I can fake it.” He said, “Can I sing it with you?” So he sat next to me at the piano bench, and Michael Jordan and I played “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”
And how was his performance?
(Tamburr laughs.) He should keep his day job! But it was a moment. The next thing we know, we got called multiple times to do private events for him at his home, at the arena. There was a familiarity and trust built up. It lasted probably two or three years.
Away from your professional work, you have a unique way of promoting music in the local schools, too.
I work with Shana Tucker. She’s a vocalist. We’re both involved in the United Arts Council. We usually do two performances a month in local schools. The age group we work with is primarily K–6. We talk about the instruments, we talk about what it’s like to play together and how to improvise.
Before YouTube and smartphones, to be entertained, you had to go out and do stuff. Our society has shifted to using some of these devices for not only education, but also for what we do when we’re not in school. So how do you get kids to even know what a cello is? The idea here is that we want to expose as many young kids to what live music really is—what it looks like and feels like and sounds like. It’s joyful and interactive, and it doesn’t involve a tablet or a game. It isn’t an app. To me, that is how you cultivate an audience, even at that young age.
It sounds like the Legacy of Jazz Series is something unique in the Triangle.
The concept of Legacy of Jazz is strongly-themed concept performances based upon the legacy of artists that have come before us. I’m using the theme for our market reach. The music of Nat King Cole or the music of Cole Porter. Hopefully that sells tickets. We’ve sold out all the shows in Cary. I’m trying to be pretty creative with the types of shows we present.
You’ve settled into Apex as your new home. You have a beautiful property. It looks like there’s a lot of yard work.
Yes, a lot of yard work, and I’m the lawn service! We’re able to have a little bit of land; we have 16 chickens. We have seven bee hives on the property. We really love being outside in our yard, or just going out. Like last night, we went to a brewery in Pittsboro to hear some live music. And we like to get ice cream in Apex.
I don’t think we would leave Apex. We may look for a slightly smaller home and a little bit more land. We love it here. We love going out to the beach to Oak Island. I just took my daughter up to Asheville for a long weekend for a father-daughter hang in the mountains hiking. This area has really been a blessing for us as a family because it really can be so many things.
LEGACY OF JAZZ CONCERT DATES
The Legacy of Jazz Series continues on the following dates at The Cary Theater. Visit thecarytheater.com to learn more.
La Vida Es Musica
Friday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Latin Jazz from Argentina, Brazil and Beyond featuring Triad: Tamburr (marimba), Dominick Farinacci (trumpet) and Michael Ward-Bergeman (accordion).
Some Enchanted Evening
Friday, February 9 at 7:30 p.m.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein Song Book featuring Jane Monheit with the Christian Tamburr Trio.
The Great American Crooners
Saturday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m.
The Music of Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Sinatra and beyond, featuring Clint Holmes with the Christian Tamburr Trio.