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Ryan Keberle: Something Speaking

By Published: July 31, 2007
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 agree—there 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.

RyanAAJ: The warmth and unity of the horn section stands out particularly when you step out as a soloist. Your sound is very outgoing by contrast—full 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 stream—which 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 writers—two 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.

RyanAAJ: You want to hear a song.

RK: Yeah, absolutely. I just love great melodies in every style and every genre of music—not 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 background—Brahms, and moving through Chopin Ravel and Debussy. I'm a classical pianist as well. They had a huge influence on my harmonic perspective.

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Download jazz mp3 “Wedding Music” by Ryan Keberle