Everything opposite of 'Sex, Drugs, & Rock'n'Roll
Max Ribner is pioneering a new path of the artist. He isn’t drawn to the stereotypical lifestyle; preferring the gym over the bar – favoring the singularity of a strong partnership to the forever shifting attentions of adoring female fans – opting to steep in nature rather than imbibe intoxicants. He hopes to inspire musicians and fans alike – showing that well-being supports a fulfilling life. His solid musicianship has afforded him plenty of opportunities do just that, landing him on stages the world over – from Red Rocks to the Byron Bay Blues Festival – regularly performing for audiences of thousands.
From touring extensively with Nahko & Medicine For The People to lending his skillful sound to the likes of Esperanza and members of Prince, Stevie Wonder and Tower of Power, as well as touring internationally on his own, Max is no stranger to the strains of being a career musician.
Max got his start early in life, thanks to his father’s keen attention and encouragement. Recognizing Max’s need for a way to express his naturally energetic, wind-like nature – he recommended Max pick up the horn, signing him up for private lessons with various coast guard instructors at age nine. Having found his academic schooling to be a challenge, Max had the upper-hand in music; this was something he understood, allowing him to excel and even help others comprehend that which came easily to him.
"Music is my first language"
Though his initial training was classical, by age 13, Max discovered jazz. Compared with the well-defined structures he was used to, jazz offered a sense of freedom – an opportunity to explore spontaneity – to stretch his creative muscles in new ways. He fell in love with improvisation, with what he refers to as ‘the magic that lives in the unknown, in the places yet to be discovered.’ It was then that he truly became committed to pursuing the ‘legacy of music.’
Upon finishing high-school, continuing his musical education was an obvious choice. He was accepted into the Berklee College of Music, graduating after just 3 years. Though he credits those years with molding him as an artist, he left with a feeling of over-saturation and chose to then take a year off.
Inspired by his older brother, Noah Ribner, at age 21, Max moved from his hometown of Stonington, Connecticut to Portland, Oregon. Max refers to Noah as a deeply influential mentor who taught him to not be afraid, offering three words that Max now lives by – ‘follow your curiosities’ – as well as introducing him to indigenous teachings and native wisdom.
Max also credits his brother, Tim Ribner, – a pianist – as being one of his earliest and strongest supporters. He fondly recalls late nights sharing ideas at their grandmother’s piano, adding to and augmenting each-other’s songs and encouraging one another as they grew into skilled musicians. Max says; ‘Whether late nights on the piano, facing out towards Palmer Street in Connecticut or to a sold out show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, he’s always had my back.’
What followed was a solo journey of self-discovery as Max traveled between Portland and Coos Bay, volunteering on farms, working the land and writing. Through those experiences, he became more comfortable with himself...
Learning to trust his unique, musical voice – coming to understand how deeply his musicality is informed by nature.
That genuine connection with the land drew him to Hawaii to volunteer on a farm. It was there that Max met Nahko. Speaking first through music, they discovered a musical kinship both had longed for. They began collaborating – busking on streets – playing farmer’s markets in exchange for fresh vegetables. In Nahko’s band, Medicine For The People, Max found what he’d been looking for...
Music with a message, ‘with real roots beneath it.’
In 2014, inspired by how much he struggled in school, he created The Youth Music Empowerment Group, opening his home to kids in his community. Knowing how often children give up on music due to lack of access or not having the right teacher, he wanted to provide an exploratory atmosphere in which to try different instruments and experiment with improvisation – a creative, hands on approach to understanding the language of music. After a year of bi-monthly gatherings, they created Wolf Pak – a studio album featuring the children.
Through the creation of his first official album, Here In Spirit – a tribute to his late grandmother – Max began developing a simple song-writing style that draws from everything he’s learned, infusing funk, soul, jazz, singer/songwriter, classical and latin with elements of gospel – weaving symbolic messages into his melodies that he hopes will speak to others.
Max’s second album, Leap To Flame, was inspired by a quote – passed down from his grandfather to his father, then to his eldest brother, Noah, then to Max – by which the Ribners have guided their lives; ‘Life is a game with a glorious prize, let your purpose leap into flame and shout do or die!’ The album, which features nearly 40 artists, then evolved into a larger dream; a theatrical performance on PSU’s Lincoln Hall stage. The show included a 9 piece funk band, Max’s Youth Music Empowerment Group, a grandmother elder, African, tango and modern dancers, a stilted and a brass band from PSU’s youth jazz program.
As the show ended, Max remembers seeing his grandfather smiling at him through his father’s eyes. He was so overcome with emotion that he wept on stage. He says; ‘The show was an example of how, as a collective, we can create anything that we dream – it all starts with a small spark.’
Max has big dreams for his next album with his band, featuring the soulful voice of gospel singer Saeeda Wright. He describes them as a ‘humble / peaceful band’; an electric/eclectic sound that infuses many styles, incorporating culture, dance and indigenous teachings of elders. He envisions integrating a gospel choir and an orchestra as well. For Max, the gospel represents ‘The Freedom Songs’. As such, he hopes this album will create ripples – that it might help build bridges with African American and indigenous communities.
Max’s music is like a study in cultural anthropology – a drawing together of world influences – made stronger for its variety of voices.
He's compelled by the idea that each song tells its own story, one that isn’t about him, but rather a ‘collective of artists’ – each song an example of what it sounds like when we work together rather than against one another. He aims to use the stage as a platform from which to reach across cultural divides – to connect seemingly disparate communities and encourage a deeper listening. He considers his choice of instrument, The Flugel Horn – traditionally used on battlefields – to be his way of ‘calling the troops’ – reaching beyond the social boundaries that we imagine separate us – extending an invitation to collaborate rather than combat.
Max’s community-building efforts transcend the stage. Most notably, he has spearheaded Call to Brotherhood, an organization that provides safe outlets for men to express from a place of truth. This includes retreats + projects for men working with Navajo elder Ron Interpreter. As well, while touring Australia, New Zealand, Europe and across America, Max has set up ‘meet-ups’, inviting fans and community of all walks to come together after ‘sound check’. Raw expression and shared vulnerability are deeply important to Max. He believes that such opportunities to connect more authentically are desperately needed.
Max foresees his music evolving in ever more sustainable ways. Instead of traveling to a new city each day, he longs to get to know the communities he visits – through offering multi-day workshops at colleges and cultural centers and collaborating with dance-troops. He also hopes to bring music into difficult places – to visit prisons and perform for inmates....
to be an instrument of change and compassionate activism.
Written by Zipporah Lomax