Ryan Keberle: Something Speaking

Ken Kase By

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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.
Trombonist Ryan Keberle's debut CD, Double Quartet (Alternative Side, 2007), displays a facile and expressive instrumentalist with a sound and technique that is smoothly intoned and gregarious with an emphasis on creating strong melodic lines. He is also a musical thinker with a rapidly maturing compositional and arranging style.

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.

RyanAAJ: 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 wit—people 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 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.
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