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Ryan Keberle: Multicolored Tapestry


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Jazz has the ability to be more emotionally powerful than any other music because of the high quality of musicians, the spontaneity and the depth of personal expression you find in jazz.
—Ryan Keberle
Ryan Keberle is a musician with open ears, who listens to all kinds of music with the attitude that in most cases something can be learned from it. He listens as a fan and as a musician. It can be just to enjoy rock, alternative, pop, R&B or blues. But there might be a kernel of something that will stick with him, maybe influencing in his gripping and supple trombone solos, or in his writing and arranging.

He plays trombone. But also piano. And he sings. His considerable—and growing— talents extend to writing and arranging. Those are the threads he spins through the loom of his mind and heart that results in the tapestry of his art. It's a tapestry of many colors.

"Other kinds of music are important to me as a listener and as a music fan and as a musician," says Keberle. "A lot of the music I listen to over the years, or the music that's moved me the most, isn't jazz. That's not because I'm not a jazz fan. I love it to death. But I think that's something jazz musicians can learn from. Jazz has the ability to be more emotionally powerful than any other music because of the high quality of musicians, the spontaneity and the depth of personal expression you find in jazz. But often times, that's not the case. I think a lot about that and I use other music—pop music, folk music, Latin music—as guides and models."

The Spokane, Washington, native not only uses other music, he plays in diverse settings and tries to learn from each. He has toured with the acclaimed indie rocker Sufjan Stevens as well as the bands of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue. He's played with Wynton Marsalis and the likes of Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake. Keberle has played on movie soundtracks and in the pit for the Tony-winning Broadway musical "In the Heights."

"I'm not trying to play pop music," he says of his own recordings. "I'm not trying to even channel it. But I'm looking to take lessons that I've learned from that music and things that make that music great and stand the test of time. Why do we still listen to and talk about the Beatles' music when they haven't recorded anything in 50 years? Why is that music still important? Those are the things I'm interested in learning more about and the kind of things I hope to apply to my music. Most people listen to music because it moves them somehow."

Music Is Emotion is the title of Keberle's latest recording with his band Catharsis. It's also one of his credos. The disk is remarkable, as are the musicians he chose to bring the music to life; the same ones he has been touring with, for the most part, to present the music. It's jazz music. It's melodic and moving. The improvisations, always important to Keberle the player, are exquisite. For this recording, and this band which he is justly proud of, there is no pianist, and it presented a new set of challenges for this musician with inquiring mind.

"It's one of the interesting things about the group and it's also one of the challenging things about the group. My first two records were with a large ensemble, relatively speaking. One of the reasons for having an ensemble of that size. is I love to arrange. I'm a huge student of the arranging history of jazz," he says. "It was one of the reasons I was hesitant to do a small group thing. But what I found, by hearing more music of various kinds, was that by taking away the piano and the guitar, you were forced to arrange because otherwise there was no kind of clear or preconceived harmony being stated by the band."

Keberle said arranging for Catharsis isn't necessarily about adding color tones and creating different textures. "It's a more utilitarian approach to arranging in that I've got three notes—sometimes four because Jorge [Roeder, bass] is an absolute monster on the bass—and you need all three to create any kind of traditional chord. Even when you get into more ambiguous or non-standard harmonic sound, you still need those three notes most of the time. You don't have that many options. I found that, originally, to be a challenge because I wasn't used to it. But what I found in the end was, when I began thinking only in terms of three or four notes, was how a whole new world opened up to me. I realized that having all these extra choices is actually a crutch in that there are too many choices. It's hard to make the right one. The one that's right for that moment."

Keberle says it helped him edit his compositional arranging processes down to the key elements. He also found that it was not uncommon among noted composers. "Stravinsky, in particular, used to talk about the fact that he would try to do similar things and limit himself to literally one device—whether it was a rhythmic or melodic or harmonic devise. He would try to milk that once devise for all it was worth. Sometimes for an entire composition. I stumbled upon that realization in my own way."

While he loves the Catharsis band, he does not compose with the players specifically in mind. As a trained pianist with a classical background, he composes at the piano. "I play pretty melodies and simple chord progressions and grooves and when I play something I like, I pull out my iPhone, hit 'voice record' and set it away." Those melodies might sit for a while because he's so busy as a freelance trombonist and as a teacher at Hunter College in New York City, it might take him a while to return to a song. But, "when it's time to write a new tune for the band, I'll go back. I'll find something that I like. Sometimes it's multiple things I like and I weave it together, create a song. Create the actual composition at that point with the specific instrumentation in mind."

Keberle loves the way the individuals in the band interpret the music. These are players he admires.

Drummer Eric Doob he met through fellow trombonist Marshall Gilkes. Doob was on Keberle's last record, Heavy Dreaming. Roeder he met through Doob, as the two have been rhythm mates in a variety of settings. "They have a special chemistry that's pretty hard to find here in New York. I met Jorge and I knew immediately we were kindred spirits. He has impeccable technique and perfect intonation, which is something I really need in this band. His musicality is second to none. everything he plays. Whether it's a bass line, a one-chord vamp or a solo over a bebop tune, to me it's like jazz Mozart. It's just perfect. I wouldn't change one note if I could go back to correct it or make it better. His sense of melody and theme development, his sense of shape within a solo or a whole song, is stuff you can't really teach. He's a very professional musician."

Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez is making a big name for himself over the years, putting his sweet tone and strong chops on display in a variety of projects.

"On so many levels, he is one of my favorite trumpet players out there today," says Keberle. "He's got it all. The first thing people recognize is his sound. Especially for this band where his sound and my sound are creating everything. The melody, the harmony. In many cases it's even some of the groove. So the sound is so important, in terms of it being pleasant to listen to, and in terms of it blending with my own. The better the blend, the more overtones, the richer the harmony sounds. His time is unbelievably deep. Within every groove too. He can swing his butt off, but he's an excellent Latin player as well, and everything else.

"What I love about his playing the most is how creative his improvisations are. He never plays the same thing twice. I'm of the same mindset. Both of us are looking to create melodies that are fitting for that moment, are fitting for the song, as opposed to drawing from some well-defined and preconceived language. Not that we never play licks. Everybody does. But trying not to fall into those traps, as it's so easy to do."

The band's first official gig was January of 2012. He's been successful in getting steady work ever since and as a result, they achieved a chemistry the trombonist says is rare these days. The music sounds organic and the musicians are comfortable with one another.

"Every record that every musician puts out is something they're proud of, but this being my third record I felt it was something that I can say reflects who I am—though that's always true too an extent—it reflects who I want to be. This music is so deep, so complex. These instruments are so difficult to master. It takes a long time, but I feel like I'm finally able to scratch the surface. This is music I really want to play. These are solos that I'm proud of playing, that if I had any choice, these are ideas I would choose to play." He says response to the album within the music community was stronger than the very good critical acclaim. "It's encouraging. It keeps you going. It helps quiet all those self-doubting voices we all have floating around in our heads."

"Need Some Time" starts as a slow moving melody backed by thunderous waves of rhythm, then shifts in tempo in mood to an open space. "Nowhere to Go, Nothing to See," is a simple groove that the horns make brighter with harmonic interplay and moving melodic solos. Billy Strayhorn's "Blues In Orbit" shines from an arranging standpoint, executed wonderfully.

"From a compositional perspective, these are tunes I'm really proud of that reflect who I am but very organic songs that flow from the heart. They're not meant to represent anything other than the music that I really care deeply about. Arranging-wise, the challenge with the three voices has forced me to become a much better arranger. It opened up a whole new world of counterpoint that I never really had a chance to experience with more horns and with piano," says Keberle, adding an important point: "Definitely from a playing perspective, I'm a much better trombonist than I was six years ago when I released my first record. This is a representation of who I want to be as a musician."

Becoming a musician was evident to Keberle at a young age. Going back to his great-grandparents, his family is full of musicians and educators. His mother is a piano teacher and music director at a church. His father is a trumpet player and jazz professor and composer and arranger for big bands. His two sisters play instruments, drums and bass, and sing. In Keberle's earlier years, they had a family band. He always knew he's be playing music on some level and unlike some parents, Keberle's were always fine with the idea of their son playing professionally.

"I fought the urge for a second there. I went to school for my first year as a physics major. I realized right away, spending hours in the computer lab, that I should be practicing," he says. "That's when I decided to put all the eggs in the basket and move out to New York to finish my undergraduate degree at the Manhattan School of Music. I studied with Steve Turre there and directly thereafter went to Julliard and did two years for a graduate degree."

It was Keberle's father who started him on trombone, mainly because he often needed one in the college bands he was instructing. So as early as age 14, Keberle was occasionally playing in a college big band. Even if it was somewhat thrust upon him, it wasn't a chore. "I love the trombone. I love what it stands for in history. It's similar to my voice, so I have a natural affinity for the sound and the register. I had a natural affinity for it at a young age. It became easy for me. Typically, anything that comes easy for a kid is fun for a kid as well."

Keberle had started, however, as a classical trombonist, learning all the classical trombone repertoire and playing in all-state groups, and even an all-national orchestra, in high school. His first foray into jazz was the Count Basie band, "a good place to start because it's super swinging, they are all masters of their instruments and the history and the tradition. From there I branched out. I started listening to J.J. Johnson and Slide Hampton a lot."

To flesh out his knowledge of the jazz language, he listened to other instruments and artists like Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Lester Young. "Then I started going back. Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins," Keberle says. "I am still, to this day, trying to completely fathom Charlie Parker. He is so deep. Especially when you hear him where he got to stretch out a little bit. There's a bootleg from Sweden where he got to stretch out on three choruses of 'All the Things You Are.' It's so modern it could be something from yesterday. It's so hip. For me, Charlie Parker is where it's at."

At the Manhattan School, Keberle was immersed in his studies, not out gigging much. Looking back, he says he wasn't yet ready, but he was spending most waking hours thinking and playing and talking about jazz. He started playing in his last year there, and then transferred to the Julliard School of Music. "A friend of mine, Pedro Giraudo, put a band together in 2001. You start getting your feet a little dirty and figuring out what you need to continue to work on as an instrumentalist and as an improvisor. One thing led to another. When I was at Julliard, I met the arranging teacher there, Dave Berger, a great composer and historian. We hit it off. I've been playing with his band since around that time, 2001, 2002. It was there that I started meeting some real professionals."

Keberle was getting better gigs in New York, including subbing at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Some connections got him into Marie Schneider's band. "Even though there aren't working bands, you're not learning on the road like they used to, the big band is an important part of the learning and networking process, as it always has been."

He avows that big band experience is something is extremely valuable and, unfortunately, a lot of young musicians are missing out on it.

"It's a huge loss for them. Time will tell," he says of young musicians. "If they've already got their shit together and they play a rhythm section instrument, they probably won't be worse off for not playing with a big band. But if you're a horn player, you've got to play with a big band. It forces you to learn so many important things about playing music, like playing in tune and playing with good time. Listening to one another. Learning a history and a language and a tradition. That's important regardless of what kind of music you play."

Another important thing in the formation of Keberle and his musical mindset is willingness to take non-jazz gigs, not just for sustenance, but to see what they have to offer. Two of the most valuable experiences, he says, was playing with the Saturday Night Live band occasionally (subbing for his former teacher Turre) and touring with indie rocker Sufjan Stevens.

"Steve rarely misses ["Saturday Night Live"] because it's such an incredible gig. I've been fortunate enough for the last seven or eight years to get that call. I've gotten to know Lenny Pickett pretty well, who's become a bit of a mentor to me in terms of the music business. He's kind of a genius. His IQ is off the charts and it shows in his musical endeavors. Amazing composer, not just writing R&B stuff. He's also interested in contemporary classical electronic music. He's got an amazing mind, a very analytical mind. He taught me a lot about a lot of different things."

Of indie rock, Keberle says unabashedly "some amazingly interesting, emotionally moving, drama-filled, deeply spiritual artists are emerging from that world. A lot of crap, too, like anything. But Sufjan Stevens is one of the forefathers of that movement. He's been around for over 10 years now. He's always been a hero of mine. I knew a lot of the people playing with him and told them, 'Hey, if he ever needs another trombonist, let me know.' I know the music. I love the music. I got the call to do a world tour over about nine months, off and on. About three years ago. That was a real learning experience. He has a brilliant musical mind and is a brilliant artist in general."

Getting gigs has never been enough for Keberle. if he started taking the gigs to keep making a living in New York City, he grew to realize there was much more to it. "I learned over time that it was informing me," he says. "It has the ability to inform you if you're willing to take the time and analyze and think about what these different musics are about. That diversity is important."

"To make a living, you have to be as diverse as possible. But just because you know more styles doesn't give you a free pass to be as deeply knowledgeable about each of those styles. It takes a lot of time and dedication to each style and it takes a lot of listening. In the end it comes down to a lot of listening."

Keberle stays active and successful in New York. He's engrossed at time in teaching—a situation where he learns many invaluable things in the process. He freelances frequently and gets to play with great artists. He hopes to keep Catharsis busy and continue to relish those pleasures.

"When people ask me what I do, besides saying jazz musician, [I say] I'm an improviser. That's what I'm best at. Even before the trombone, I'm an improviser. I sing and I think I take my best solos when I'm singing, because I don't have the trombone to get in the way. It's an incredibly difficult instrument. That's why I like playing the piano too. It's a different way to express my thoughts. Any setting, regardless of the style and background, that I can improvise, I'm happy. And of course jazz is where improvising is the focal point of the performance. That's where I'm most happy."

Selected Discography

Ryan Keberle + CatharsisMusic Is Emotion (Alternate Side Records, 2013)
Ryan Truesdell Centennial, Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans (ArtistShare, 2012)
Joe Fielder, Joe Fielder's Big Sackbut (Yellow Sound Label, 2012)
Ryan Keberle Heavy Dreaming (Alternate Side Records, 2010)
Ryan Keberle Double Quartet (Alternate Side Records, 2007)
Alicia Keys, Superwoman (J Records, 2008)
Maria Schneider, Sky Blue (ArtistShare, 2007)

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