Profile on Kurt Ribak
May 23, 2019
Berkeley native Kurt Ribak celebrates his recovery with his new recording ONWARD, after an injury that nearly ended his career.
Kurt Ribak is a veteran Bay Area jazz bassist who has shared the stage with circus performers and preachers, “but never at the same time,” he notes. He put together a working band under his own name to play his own compositions, playing local venues as well as larger concert halls and festivals.
In 2012 Kurt was about to go into the studio to make his next recording when he was broadsided by a car that blew a stop sign at full speed. Kurt’s truck was flipped onto the driver’s side — Kurt was driving — and his left forearm was badly injured, with compound fractures of each finger and other injuries requiring extensive skin and tendon grafts. Kurt looked at his hand right after the impact and thought, “One of my worst fears has just come true.”
“Before the accident I was gigging a lot as a leader and as a sideman,” he says.“Suddenly, I’m ‘Trauma of the Day’ at Highland Hospital. Highland gave me great care, but you don’t want to be the patient who needs them the most.”
Kurt knew the injury was serious — that was clear the moment he saw and felt it, yet he had one surgeon tell him, “It doesn’t matter if you’re motivated to do rehab if there’s nothing we can do.” Despite that discouraging warning, Kurt decided he would try to get back to playing bass if possible and pursuing “his previously scheduled life,” as he puts it.
“When I was hurt I learned how many people loved me, cared about me. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I learned it takes a community to heal someone.” There was an outpouring of support for the bassist. Fellow musicians organized fundraisers to help him with the expenses and loss of income – as did the church where Kurt regularly plays. Friends and fans donated money, helped him get to medical appointments, and more.
Ahead lay the long and uncertain process of recovery. Ultimately, there were thirteen surgeries spanning four years – and years of intensive physical therapy. “I decided I would treat physical therapy as my job. Get up, work on physical therapy, go to appointments, and keep doing it into the night. I hear most patients don’t do the work they need to do to recover, but I didn’t want me to be the limiting factor in my recovery. I didn’t have control over my situation, but I did what I could to influence it.”
As Kurt healed, he had to figure out how he could make music again. Eventually he was able to start playing the upright bass regularly – but with a hand that was very different than the one he started with. “I had to make decisions and tradeoffs going into the surgeries. It was clear I was not going to have a fully functioning left hand, so I made decisions in the reconstruction that would help me play bass.”
So, to 2019. Kurt has released ONWARD, his fifth album leading his own band and featuring his compositions. The album ranges from soul-jazz to ska, from bebop to ballads. Kurt sings three numbers. “I’ve been working on singing more since I got hurt and I’ve always appreciated good lyrics. Most of my tunes are instrumentals, though. I don’t see me putting down the bass if I don’t have to. What I want to do is what I’m doing now. I wish my accident hadn’t happened – but so many good things have happened in my life as a result. It was a difficult opportunity for growth.”
Kurt Ribak Quartet will be performing on June 20 at the 37th San Francisco Jazz Festival.
Kurt will be live in studio on KCSM Jazz91 with Alisa Clancy on Wednesday, June 19 at 9:00am. Tune in or listen to the stream at KCSM.org.
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