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Interviews

Ryan Keberle: Something Speaking

By Published: July 31, 2007
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?

RyanRK: 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 trombone—Carl 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 level—Marshall 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 shower—it'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.

Ryan Keberle ><strong>AAJ:</strong> Listening to music is very unfashionable.<br /><br /><strong>RK:</strong> Especially without lyrics. That's the biggest change from thirty or even fifty years ago. If you don't have a singer, you've just lost ninety-seven percent of your audience in this country! It's really unfortunate, but again, that's why I fell like if I can bring back that sense of melody, at least I'm getting part of what people like in vocal music.
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Download jazz mp3 “Wedding Music” by Ryan Keberle