Photo courtesy of the artist.
Ryan Keberle’s longstanding band Catharsis is bringing a new suite of music to The Jazz Gallery based on “Let America Be America Again,” a long-form poem by Langston Hughes. Packed with versatile multi-instrumentalists, the tight-knit group features an orchestral mix of voices, horns, keyboards, drums, bass, and guitar. Catharsis was featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, and has released a number of albums, including Azul Infinito, which was listed as one of “5 jazz albums you need to hear” by Billboard magazine’s Natalie Weiner in 2016.
Keberle’s musical life is rounded out by other projects, such as his recent quartet project Reverso, which reimagines the music of Maurice Ravel. He has performed and collaborated with The Maria Schneider Orchestra, David Bowie, Sufjan Stevens, Ivan Lins, the Saturday Night Live house band, Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Rufus Reid, and Wynton Marsalis. He directs the jazz program at Hunter College, and maintains a robust private teaching studio. Keberle is no stranger to this blog, and it was our pleasure to speak with him again about development of the upcoming Catharsis record, The Hope I Hold.
The Jazz Gallery: Let’s start with the new album that Catharsis will be releasing in June. Could you tell me a little about the music itself, some of which you’ll be playing at The Gallery this Thursday?
Ryan Keberle: The impetus for the new set of tunes was a Chamber Music America ‘New Jazz Works’ commission which I received about three years ago. At the time, we had just released Find The Common, Shine A Light, an album of social protest music, some original songs and some arrangements of classic protest tunes. One of the things I enjoyed throughout that process was working with a lyricist. I worked with Mantsa Miro on previous records, and usually I would write music, send it to her, and she would set words to it. With the past album, Find The Common, we did the opposite: We had a specific message already, so she wrote the poetry, and I set that to music. The album coincided with my creating and teaching a new songwriting course at Hunter College, which got me thinking about utilizing the human voice in setting sounds to rhythm and melody.
This new project looks to expand on those text-setting and songwriting experiences. I decided to use a Langston Hughes poem called “Let America Be America Again,” written about ninety years ago. It’s a social protest work, and it feels like it could have been written last week. It’s utterly poignant, and so little has changed since it was written. As depressing as that might sound, it’s an uplifting poem, a message of hope, which is something I try to balance within our band. So I used excerpts of the poem—if I’d used the whole thing, I would have wound up with a mini-opera [laughs]. The name of the suite, and of the album, is The Hope I Hold, a play on words that Langston Hughes uses in the poem. The project features all the same people in Catharsis with one exception, Scott Robinson, who is now our regular horn player in place of Mike Rodriguez. Excitingly, everyone will be at The Jazz Gallery next Thursday, which doesn’t often happen anymore.
TJG: So you decided to set portions of this Langston Hughes poem: You chopped, spliced, explored, composed. Day one, when you bring it into the band, how does that look?
RK: I come at composition from a bigger-picture mindset. Jazz tends to get buried in the details pretty easily, but ever since my experience with Sufjan, as well as my experience with Maria Schneider, I’m always thinking more about the flow, the arc of a song, the story it tells, where the drama unfolds, the tension and release. I typically have a specific idea of how the music will flow, but early rehearsals don’t provide that bigger picture, when everyone’s learning the notes, rhythms, and orchestration. Many orchestration decisions depend on the big picture, and I don’t want to start figuring out, say, when Camila should sing unaccompanied wordless vocals versus wordless vocals with guitar in unison, until the whole band has an idea of the arc of a piece.
So the first few rehearsals are usually pretty rough, and you just have to deal with it. When we first performed this music, we had one rehearsal where we just got to know the music on a fundamental level, and then we went on tour. We played it four times in North Carolina, and finished up here in New York at Smalls. Even the way the music sounded at Smalls… It was good, but it is so different now on the recording from how it was on those initial live gigs. You’d hardly recognize the similarity between them. A lot of it has to do with how we’re using the studio. Eric Doob, our drummer, has a studio that he shares with Chet Doxas and Matt Stevens. He’s a burgeoning engineer himself. We’ve spent hours and days over the course of a year building some of these tracks. That gives an additional set of orchestration options. We’ve come 180º from the initial Catharsis group, where we had relatively limited choices, to what almost seems like unlimited options now.