Ryan Keberle is everywhere. The protean trombonist has made a name for himself as an in-demand sideman on seemingly every New York scene, performing in Latin bands, Broadway pits, and the horn sections of everyone from Alicia Keys to Sufjan Stevens. But even with all these gigs on his resume, Keberle considers himself a composer and improviser first.
His most recent album, Music Is Emotion (Alternate Side), features involved arrangements deftly performed by his pianoless quartet, Catharsis, with Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, Jorge Roeder on bass, and Eric Doob on drums. For the group’s next album, which they recorded in January, Keberle has added to the mix vocalist Camila Meza, who will also be at the group’s upcoming Gallery performance. We caught up with Ryan by phone to talk about his variegated career and current projects.
The Jazz Gallery: In addition to your solo work, you’re active in many musical fields. Do you change your mindset in some way when you enter a different setting?
Ryan Keberle: I definitely do. I think that the trick is to get to know each genre well enough so that you’re not having to think too hard, because otherwise…it sounds unnatural, and it sounds forced. Really, the key is to immerse yourself in whatever genre you’re looking to participate in so it really becomes a part of you and a part of your own musical language.
If you think you’ve got it, you probably don’t. You don’t have it until you don’t have to think about it anymore.
TJG: Is it hard to break out of the “jazz” scene?
RK: I don’t think it is in New York. I think it could be in other places where there’s just not as much work—I think that each scene is very kind of protective of the little work that they do have—but in New York, there’s so much work. Now, I say that with a grain of salt because I think people a generation before me probably think that there’s no work anymore compared to their days. But…most of the trombonists I know are incredibly busy. Part of that has to do with the instrument: it’s a really versatile instrument used in a lot of different settings. Even the pop and rock world nowadays loves the trombone, it seems.
It’s just a matter of putting yourself out there and meeting people who are doing what you want to do on your own instrument. That’s the key. I know a lot of guys who say they want to do Broadway, and they think, “Oh, I need to go and meet all the music directors and contractors…” They’re not going to call just some random dude who calls them up! The way you get in is meeting other people on your instrument, meeting other trombonists, and then they call you to sub.
TJG: How does the non-jazz work you do influence your composition and improvisation?
RK: It’s not something that I can put too clearly in technical terms. For me, it’s been a very organic and natural process, but I’ve always listened to non-jazz. Probably the records I’ve listened to most in my life are all the Beatles records, particularly the later ones. It’s just like when you’re listening to Joe Henderson or Charlie Parker to inform your musical language; I think listening to other styles does as well. Maybe not so much from a jazz language perspective—I’m not playing Beatles melodies in my solos—but especially from a compositional perspective it influences, because the kind of music that I personally listen to is based on really great songwriting.
I’ve definitely spent a fair amount of time analyzing Beatles songs, and all great songwriters: Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, a lot of jazz. Sufjan Stevens, for sure, I would include him in that conversation. And others: Bjork, Radiohead.
We just recorded my next record, and even the way that I’m thinking about a record, it’s not just, “Here are some songs that we’re going to put on a record.” I think about why I like most records that I do—it’s because it keeps your attention from start to finish, and the music has this connection, each track leads to the next, and there’s some kind of universal trait that runs through the album.
TJG: How do you approach arranging, for example, a Beatles tune?
RK: I think that each tune kind of varies depending on what makes that tune special. What makes most of the Beatles tunes so special is the melodies, so I typically keep the melodies fairly the same. I don’t change the melody much, but with keeping that melody acceptable or recognizable, I like to mess with the groove or the harmony. A thing like “Blackbird,”—I did on that first record—I re-harmed the heck out of the harmonies below and set it in this modern jazz groove, and that worked really well.
I did “Norwegian Wood” on that same record and it had this weird odd meter, but a meter that allowed the melody to basically remain the same. Oftentimes for the solo sections I’ll develop my own song form or my own harmonic content, since the original chords and original form might not lend themselves all that well to jazz improvisation. Every record I’ve done so far has [a Beatles song]; this new record doesn’t have one, but I’ve got about another record’s worth of arrangements sitting at home.
RK: That’s a good question. Definitely the common thread between the two of them, even though it’s probably not that obvious, is the fact that I have to do a considerable amount of arranging. Because there’s no chordal instrument in Catharsis, each song is almost completely…not through-composed, but through-arranged, because if you want harmonies to be sounding, some of these instruments have to be playing. Sometimes I leave that up to the members of the band to make up their own accompaniments or their own harmonies behind soloists or whatnot, but oftentimes I’ll write it in. And that gives you a lot of control over the way that pieces develop, over the way that they sound in general. Maybe I’m a control freak, I guess, but that was something that was similar in the double quartet: there were so many instruments, you have to arrange for an ensemble of that size. In terms of the way I approach it from the songwriting perspective, it’s almost identical, so that’s been nice. I haven’t really had to change that much. I guess the big difference with Catharsis is that there is no piano. I compose at the piano, so that’s really where most of my music comes from. Now I have to approach it from a different mindset—still at the piano, but now thinking about melodies.
TJG: What are you listening to these days?
RK: I always try to have something new on my iPod or at home that I’m listening to. A lot of friends, obviously; we’re always swapping. I just checked out Jamie Baum’s album that came out last year, called In This Life (Sunnyside), which is really nice writing [ed. note: Jamie performs at the Gallery this Friday, the night after Ryan]. I think my favorite record of the year last year was Ben Monder’s record. The first and last track are some of the most gorgeous modern jazz composing I’ve heard in a really, really long time. That’s called Hydra (Sunnyside). I’ve got a friend whom I met on the Sufjan Stevens tour named Nedelle Torissi, who’s an incredible singer-songwriter. She released a record last year called I Love Thousands Every Summer. Really great stuff: super cool production, kind of electronic, 80’s influenced. Actually, Catharsis covered one of her songs on our last record. On Music is Emotion, the track “The Show Must Go On” is from her record.
There’s so much great stuff out there. Daft Punk is super hip, Bruno Mars, in terms of popular singers. For the most part, I kind of veer away from super mainstream stuff—not because I think it’s all crap. I kind of get bored of the over-production of everything. Everything seems to be getting more and more dumbed down in a lot of those worlds. And that always happens. I mean, it’s been happening for seventy years, each style: it gets popular, and then more and more people want to become involved and make the money. And it gets simpler and simpler and dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, and then something else comes around and takes over. I feel like we’re kind of at that moment in many genres, but obviously there’s so much great music out there.
TJG: And as for the great music of the future, you’ve also been quite involved in teaching. What is your philosophy of jazz education?
RK: I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently. I wrote an article in December for the New York City Jazz Record, and I could write on anything, but I decided to write about exactly the question you asked. For me, number one is developing your ability to listen. People talk a lot about listening, and it has nothing to do with being aware of your surroundings. That’s where you start, but I’m talking about the ability to hear something that’s in tune or slightly out of tune. If you talk to a room of ten musicians, each person’s going to have their own ability to hear these nuances in intonation. That’s just one example. Or things like being able to hear differences in swing. Every drummer has their own unique swing groove, but for many people, they all sound the same, even in the jazz world. But when you talk to, say, a drummer who’s really studied the history of jazz drumming—man, the nuances that they hear in different swing feels from drummer to drummer blows my mind.
What [listening] allows you to do as a student is to figure out what you like, and then, because you can hear so detailed, you figure out why you like that and then you try to be able to do that yourself. But most students, they don’t hear those things, so even if a teacher says, “Check out this record, this is everything you need to hear,” they don’t know what to listen to. Even if they know what to listen to, they may not be able to hear it. So it’s really about developing your ear, and that just comes from practice. It comes from critical listening: thousands and thousands of hours of critical listening, of active listening where a hundred percent of your focus is on the music and even more specifically on some detail of the music.
And I really think that’s where it all begins.
Ryan Keberle and Catharsis performs at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, February 20th. The band features Ryan Keberle on trombone, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Matt Brewer on bass, Eric Doob on drums, and special guest Camila Meza on vocals. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m., $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($5 for members) for the second set. Purchase tickets here.