Ryan Keberle is a New York-based trombonist, composer, and bandleader whose dynamic improvising style has become indispensable for ensembles led by the likes of Maria Schneider and Wynton Marsalis. Keberle leads and composes for the group Catharsis, an pianoless indie-jazz collective, and is the director of Hunter College’s jazz studies program, where he directs big bands, teaches classes, and mentors young jazz musicians.
Keberle’s latest group, Reverso, was conceived in tandem with the French pianist Frank Woeste. Their forthcoming album, Suite Ravel, features the talents of Vincent Courtois on Cello and Jeff Ballard on drums. The compositions are inspired by the Maurice Ravel piece, “Le Tombeau de Couperin”, and seek to illuminate the porous boundaries between classical and jazz.
Keberle and Woeste bring Reverso to the Jazz Gallery on February 7th, where they will be joined by Erik Friedlander on cello and Adam Cruz on drums. We caught up with Keberle to talk about the project; excerpts of the conversation are below.
The Jazz Gallery: How did you decide to put together this specific group of musicians with this specific instrumentation? Why no bass? Or sax? What about the relatively low register of these melodic instruments seemed appropriate for approaching Ravelian melodic content?
Ryan Keberle: When Frank [Woeste] and I set out to create this project, we were starting from scratch. We knew that we wanted to work in a quartet setting, and thought that it could be nice to have an instrument that might help up straddle the jazz and chamber worlds. Frank happened to know this extraordinary cellist in Paris, which is where we recorded the album, named Vincent Courtois. We both knew we wanted drums, and much of the project wound up being tailored around the inclusion of Jeff Ballard. It was really a process of attrition, whittling things down. Vincent really added a layer of versatility, as he’s comfortable playing traditional jazz, super avant-garde jazz…His knowledge of extended techniques is amazing and he does lots of solo work. And he also plays in classical worlds as well. So he was really a force on this record.
TJG: When I think of Ravel’s music, I think of impressionism, air, clouds. It follows (in the most banal way) that a more “impressionistic” drummer would be the choice for this kind of music (particularly in a band without bass). While Jeff Ballard certainly plays beautifully in these more rubato moments, his style on Suite Ravel seems a bit more boisterous, Latin-inspired, and groove-oriented. What about this music called for Ballard’s particular rhythmic approach?
RK: Jeff is such a diverse and well-informed musician. He’s one of those people who has listened to more music than most human beings, and all of it filters into his playing. The compositions called for the groovy and subdivided approach that you hear on the record. Generally, with impressionism, you think rubato tempos, and a push and pull. But that’s not really where the music wound up going. And a big part of that is the fact that the Ravel piece that inspired us initially, “Le Tombeau du Couperin”, does have quite a bit of subdivision and tempo-based material.
With all that taken into account, I think that Jeff was really just responding to what the music needed. We didn’t give him much instruction at all! We just wanted him to come in and be him. And the minute you start giving him instructions, you squash some of the potential. He came with bags full of auxiliary percussion. I mean, he brought a whole bag of Chinese gongs with eight different pitches!
There are a few tracks on the record that are a bit more “impressionistic” so to speak, and by that, I mean tracks where Jeff is creating colors and floating over the beat, but the seminal tracks on the recording are those with a pretty serious groove. So that’s also right up his alley. He’s a master of groovey folk music, and he’s studied so much of that outside of the jazz world, whether it’s Latin or North African.
TJG: How did the name Reverso come about?
RK: Well, that was Frank’s idea, but it was born from our hope to reference the fact that there is this long history of the very disparate worlds of jazz and classical music informing one another in important ways. And also, what I find interesting is that today, in 2018, you’re in a time where these two worlds of jazz and classical music are overlapping in such a way that you even have the same musicians straddling worlds. And for me that’s a very new and exciting state of being, because, like in so much of the music world, these boundaries are being broken down. I mean, that’s what jazz music and really all beautiful culture is; it’s really a product of compromise, and shared ideas, and diversity.
TJG: I’d love to hear about the influence of jazz music on Ravel. How do you hear jazz music coming into his compositions? Is it in the harmonies and rhythms, or something more indirect about the ethos of the music?
RK: I think that Ravel’s harmony probably influenced jazz musicians more than the other way around. I think that for Ravel, what he found interesting about jazz, is its sense of rhythm, groove, and syncopation. I also think Ravel was attracted to jazz’s blending of musical cultures, the way that it drew from disparate worlds and found ways for them to coexist in one setting. Jazz, at that time, was seen as more of a folk music, and Ravel was part of a community of others like Bartok and Debussy who were very interested in incorporating folk music into this very codified and stratified classical music world. So they saw jazz as this very succesful example of how folk music could exist in different settings.
TJG: What was your composition process for this record like? How did you draw inspiration from the music of Ravel?
RK: When Frank and I decided on the piece “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” we decided that we would approach it in our own personal ways. So we composed on our own, but we would regularly connect over Skype and Email to share what we had written to try to ensure that there would be musical continuity.
Frank was more literal in his approach, and you’ll actually hear some of the themes from the original Ravel piece in his own compositions. And my approach was more “impressionistic”, for lack of a better word. However, we also tried to find aesthetic continuity. It was a unique instance of separate processes with a shared goal.
TJG: Your last work from Catharsis, Find the Common, Shine a Light took a decidedly activist stance. Reverso is a collection of works inspired by Maurice Ravel, a Western composer whose works are well represented in the Western canon. Is there something under the surface of this music that can still take on an activist bent in spite of this? What about Ravel’s music rings true today?
RK: In terms of Ravel and what he represented then and what he represents now, I’m not sure that I can say that there’s any activism at play. However, for me, having been forced to think of ways of using music as a platform for social change, I have come to realize that jazz is inherently a form of protest. Jazz represents so many things that the current administration is opposed to: creativity, diversity, indvidual thought, and personal expression. All of these things make jazz what it is. And there are so many things that are under fire at the moment. My activism has changed the way that I approach the performance process, how I relate with an audience, and also how we relate to each other on the bandstand.
Ravel was a really complicated person. He was notoriously unhappy, cynical, and dark, but he was always pushing the envelope of musical and compositional techniques in terms of what was accepted by the establishment. So in his day, he was a bit of a renegade, and he was generally not as celebrated as his peers like Debussy and Bartok. So I think this stance of nonconformity resonates today, and a lot of the jazz musicians who I look up to who are doing things that are musically and socially relevant, are the ones who are willing to take chances and disregard boundaries. So, I see Ravel as someone who was willing to take those chances.
TJG: Aside from Reverso, what’s on the horizon for you musically?
RK: I have a problem: I’m a bit of a workaholic! So at the moment, aside from these tours, we have a pretty busy spring with Catharsis. We’re still playing the music from our past record, Find the Common. I’ve also begun recording for songs that will be on the next Catharsis record. Some of these compositions were inspired by a life-changing trip that I took to Brazil, and there’s also music that I was commissioned to write by Chamber Music America that was inspired by a really powerful Langston Hughes poem called “Let America Be America Again”.
There’s also a new branch of Catharsis called the Catharsis Trio that debuted in Japan last month. The trio features Camila Meza on vocals and guitar, Jorge Roeder on bass, and myself on Trombone and keys. So it’s a very intimate chamber version of the band, and over the tour in Japan, we developed our own unique repertoire, playing originals by Camila and Jorge. We played some Latin American folk music and some Jaco [Pastorius] tunes. It was really fun! We just recorded an EP that I’m currently mixing.
I’m also developing a solo project for electronics, laptop, trombone, pedals, and keyboard! That was born out of a collaboration with a sculptor who creates these crazy paper maiche objects on projected slides.
Finally have a big band project called Living Legacy, that features some of the last surviving members of Basie and Ellington’s bands. These guys speak a unique language that is in danger of becoming extinct because it’s such a specific thing, and it can really only be passed on through live presentation. I was fortunate enough to play with a lot of these musicians early in my career, so I learned from them on the bandstand, hearing them play this language live. And I’ve learned since then that a lot of those things that I picked up are really hard to hear on a recording: the specific articulations that brass players use, phrasing, swinging together as a group. It’s really a special thing.
Reverso celebrates the release of their album Suite Ravel at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. The group features Ryan Keberle on trombone, Franke Woeste on piano, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Adam Cruz on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.