Ryan Keberle: Something Speaking
“ I'm starting to see that virtuosic presence in the trombone is starting to take shape, I would say give it another twenty years, and I think the state of the trombone will be drastically different than it is now. ”
He currently performs with his own group, but stays busy in New York as a member of Maria Schneider's Orchestra and performing with the likes of Slide Hampton, Joe Lovano and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He is currently a lecturer at City University's Hunter College.
His emergent talents bring together the form and dynamism of classical music and the passion and rhythmic intensity of jazz. At 26, he is among that rare breed of young musicians who seeks to explore new ideas while maintaining a strong connection with audiences. That spirit is fitting for a musician and educator devoted not only to honing his craft, but using his music and knowledge to communicate with people.
Keberle is full of energy. Always eager to discuss music, he is aware of but not consumed by tradition and reverence for jazz that can keep people and musicians at a distance. His youthful enthusiasm for new musical forms and new ways to approach them is infectious. He spoke to me from his kitchen in Brooklyn, NY.
All About Jazz: Your debut contains some good work. What stands out to me is the wholeness of tone between the brass players. the arrangements really bring that out. You have developed a unique vocabulary and style in writing for brass. What was going through your mind as you put the material together for these musicians?
Ryan Keberle: I think when you assemble a band of musicians of this caliber, especially in terms of the blend of brass instruments, you're already working with something great. Being a brass player, I sort of knew that, having been trained in classical music from a very early age. I didn't even start on the trombone, but on classical piano and violin, so that's really in my blood. As I took up the trombone, I started to learn just how brass instruments can interact with each other to produce these really warm sonorities that you're talking about. I always kept that in mind and I've always had a real fondness for brass instruments. Being a trombone player, I'm a little bit biased.
There are plenty of recordings with saxophone, and nothing against them, but there aren't as many with brass, especially with the French horn and the tuba, which I think is probably what makes my recording just a little bit more unique than other brass-inspired records. The tuba and the French horn are both extremely warm instruments. They both have this incredible overtone series, as does the trombone. when you put those together in perfect intonation, you're going to get this massive sound, regardless of the writing and voicings.
AAJ: Writing about this record was difficult, because I wanted to convey to the reader the warm sound, but I didn't want to leave the impression that it's just a bunch of whole notes. It's rhythmic and quirky stuff, and the group works through some tough charts.
RK:That's a very good point. You're right in that you have to take the description of the brass and what they're doing in context with the fact that it is still a jazz record. For me, what makes it jazz is that rhythmic energy, beyond anything else, right up there with improvisation. That rhythmic energy or the swing feel or whatever you want to call it is just as important. that's where I'm coming from one-hundred percent.
AAJ: There's certainly precedent for the type of horn ensemble you've put together, going back to Birth of the Cool-era Miles (Capitol, 1949). It reminds me of Mingus, Jack Walrath and Don Grolnick. Your music has that kind of witpeople don't often talk about the fact that musicians, their arrangements and their playing can show a sense of humor.
RK: Absolutely. Some of my favorite artists today are those who don't take their music too seriously. Of course, you want to take it seriously, but I want to convey to the listener that we are having a good time and that we do this because we love it. We are thoroughly enjoying ourselves and interacting with each other, and hopefully connecting and interacting with the audience. To me, the audience's perspective, whether they like it or dislike it, doesn't really matter so much as long as I'm getting a reaction. I'm hoping that they like it, but first and foremost, I'm hoping that they'll want to listen to it.
AAJ: Can it be said that part of what's hurting jazz is the over-reverence and seriousness with which we're supposed to treat the music?
RK: Yeah, it drives me crazy. That's one of my pet peeves. It's always been that way to a certain extent. I think it had to be that way in the past when jazz was trying to gain the recognition it deserved, but in this day and age, that's no longer an issue. Music is there to be enjoyed. There's really nothing more to it than that.
AAJ: In trying to seek credibility on par with classical music, maybe jazz has succeeded in doing what classical music did a long time ago; that is, removing itself from people's daily lives and becoming something they experience in a museum. Do people have a preconceived idea of what jazz is supposed to be?
RK: I agreethere aren't many people nowadays who are successful at connecting with the listener. But there are a few, and to me, they're the ones I'm trying to match at some level. One person who I think has an amazing sense of humor and is really able to translate that to his audience would be Dave Douglas. He's someone I've studied with. Another is Wycliffe Gordon, and Maria Schneider. I've been playing with her for over a year. Her music is very complex and intellectual, but time and time again, we play these concerts and people are moved to tears. People are truly touched by that music even though it's extremely intellectual. For me, that's a real lesson and something to strive for.
AAJ: The warmth and unity of the horn section stands out particularly when you step out as a soloist. Your sound is very outgoing by contrastfull of personality.
RK: I would imagine, judging by what people have told me, that my reputation in New York is of someone who goes for it regardless of style or situation. I never hold back; it's always a hundred and ten percent, which does come through in volume, That being said, I love playing ballads, but I think when I'm in my element and not really thinking about any of that, like you said, it definitely tends to be on the more aggressive side of things.
AAJ: Your compositions are really interesting. You spoke of the classical influence, and I noticed that you have a layered style with lots of movements and tempo shifts and dynamic changes rather than a "head-solos-head" format. How has the classical element contributed to the way you compose?
RK: Another feeling I've always had in regard to "arranged" jazz is that we don't take it as far as classical musicians do in terms of our dynamic options and all these variables that in classical music are very normal. If you listen to a classical record, almost without fail on any track, you're going to have this huge spectrum of volume, you're going to have tempo changes, and you're going to have many key changes. You're never going to hear a classical piece in one key from start to finish. I think that in the jazz world, that's partly because it was music that was serving a purpose beyond just high art. Things had to get done in a certain time, things had to be written for a specific situation, so I think that over time, some of those variables were lost. Not because they didn't want to use them, but because they didn't have the time or it wasn't necessary. So I'm trying to resurrect some of those classical sensibilities like dynamic and tempo contrasts. It just makes it all the more interesting, not just for the listener, but for the player.
AAJ: Like improvised chamber music?
RK: Yeah, in a sense, exactly! My number one objective is to still preserve that sense of rhythmic energy, and that's something that I always felt was lacking in some of the third streamwhich I love from an arranging perspective, but my goal is to try to take the best of both worlds and create something that's hopefully a unique combination of those things.
AAJ: I was really happy to see a disc by a contemporary jazz performer where the majority of tracks are original compositions. I found equally interesting your choice of music by other writerstwo Lennon/McCartney tunes, a Wayne Shorter tune and one by Brad Mehldau. I thought I knew Shorter's "Children of the Night" until I heard your version of it. Why did you choose those songs?
RK: I have an eclectic taste in music, and that's apparent in my choice of selections, but far and away, the unifying factor is melody. For me, that's what makes great compositions great. If I were to list my favorite songwriters or composers, they would all be the ones who, without fail, make you walk away from the music singing the melody. I think today sometimes the melody is lost, especially in more modern jazz, in an attempt to create new lines, new harmonies and new rhythmic ideas. Going back to that connection with the audience, for most listeners, melody is one of the only things they're going to walk away with. I think audiences also appreciate rhythmic energy and, of course, emotion and passion, but the only thing they're going to walk away with and remember is the melody. I'm the same way. I want to listen to music that has a singable melody.
AAJ: You want to hear a song.
RK: Yeah, absolutely. I just love great melodies in every style and every genre of musicnot just jazz or classical, but everything. I just love good melody.
AAJ: When you're writing, do you hear melody first, or are you thinking in larger chunks of sound?
RK: Almost without fail, I write melodies first, chords second, and in terms of this record, which has pretty involved arrangements, that would come last. When I'm arranging, I am trying to come up with new and original harmonies, but when you take melody away, you lose the ability to connection with the audience. I approach it with a grain of salt and attempt to create harmonies that are unique, but harmonies that let the melody shine. It goes back to my classical backgroundBrahms, and moving through Chopin Ravel and Debussy. I'm a classical pianist as well. They had a huge influence on my harmonic perspective.
AAJ: Your version of "Blackbird" is great, and I thought that opened up some great soloing from [pianist] Adam Birnbaum and [trumpeter] Michael Rodriguez.
RK: Those two guys in particular are my favorite young improvisers in the world. They both create amazing melodies in their improvisations, which is something else that I really strive for. They're both just wizards on their instruments. Being a brass player, I'm in total awe of what Mike does. There's not another trumpet player out there that I know of who even comes close to having the kind of control he has on his instrument, as well as virtuosic technique. But he doesn't always show it off. He uses it within the context of creating a story, playing melodic ideas and taking the listener somewhere.
AAJ: You gave Jose Davila a nice spot for a tuba solo in "Children of the Night."
RK: I love that solo. I wish I would have given him another one. It's something unique and it totally changes the vibe of what you're used to hearing in an improvisational setting. It's like, "Whoa! Was that a tuba solo?" He's incredible, and he's also an amazing trombone player. If he can do it, then why not give him the opportunity?
AAJ: You don't often hear a quartet with a trombone out front. Historically, the trombone underwent the most radical changes in technique to accommodate the demands of bebop and everything after. What do you think the status of the trombone as a solo instrument is now?
RK: Trombonists nowadays are doing great things. In comparison to saxophone or piano, you'll notice a huge lack of trombonists who are successful leaders. It's not a reflection on the players, but we haven't had a Coleman Hawkins, a John Coltrane or a Charlie Parker. J.J. Johnson was a master and one of my all-time heroes, but in terms of technical mastery of the instrument, it was great at the time, but compared to now, it's nowhere close. He was an amazing arranger, but he wasn't John Coltrane. So I think without those precedents on the instrument, it really set the evolution behind. I'd say we're nearly twenty, thirty or forty years behind just about every other instrument.
There have been some real virtuosos on the tromboneCarl Fontana, Bill Watrous and Steve Turre, but people are working without that precedent of Coltrane. I'm starting to see that virtuosic presence in the trombone is starting to take shape, I would say give it another twenty years, and I think the state of the trombone will be drastically different than it is now. There's a younger generation of trombonists setting the bar at the next levelMarshall Gilkes, who's in my ensemble, is one of those. Alan Ferber, Elliot Mason, Josh Roseman...there are quite a few, but these are young guys, in their late twenties, early thirties.
AAJ: So this is the "double quartet"does that mean your normal quartet with you plus a rhythm section augmented by four other horns?
RK: I guess that's what I thought originally. Nowadays, I hardly ever play with a small group. If I'm playing a gig with my own band, I almost always try to get the double quartet. I much prefer that setting. When I was first starting up here in New York City, in school and shortly thereafter, I was a small group player. Then, as I began to realize some of these more arrangement-inspired pieces, I took it to a different place.
AAJ: Sounds like a pretty good octet, too.
RK: Yes, exactly. That's what I love about it. When I'm explaining it to people, I can say that I can use the quartet in more of a chamber setting and write for them as a unit, but really what makes the group work is that they can all blow. They're all amazing improvisers. In a performance setting, it's great to have eight people on stage who are all just incredible soloists.
AAJ: Collectively, you all hold the dynamic back in a very suspenseful way. There's a lot going on, but in many people equate harmonic and rhythmic business with a lot of volume. You've taken the opposite tack by holding things back with a tremendous amount of restraint that makes you have to pay attention.
RK: I love the idea of making the audience listen a little bit harder. I teach a jazz history course for non-majors. The most amazing thing is how most people really don't know how to listen to music. Most people listen to music in their cars or in the showerit's background music. So I have to really explain to them how to listen to jazz in a more specific way. One of those things that I notice is that when they're listening to quiet music, the whole room gets quieter, everyone's listening a little bit harder, and they notice things.
AAJ: We have more and more access to music in different formats. You can take it everywhere you go, yet people's listening skills haven't appreciated with the technology.
RK: It's depreciated for sure.