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.
TJG: You mentioned a class at Hunter College. How did the development of this suite of music coincide with the activity of the course?
RK: I run the jazz studies program at Hunter College, which is very small, I’m the only full-time jazz educator on faculty, so it’s essentially whatever I have the time to teach each year. A few years back, the new department chair and I felt that songwriting would a much-needed course to offer our students. I’ve always been passionate about songwriting, so it was fun for me to come at it from a more systematic angle, looking through textbooks, discovering theories and approaches I’d unconsciously been using because I hadn’t codified them. It was fun to put that together to create a beneficial class for my students. This was happening just as I received the CMA grant, so in a lot of the lectures, I would workshop some of the music I had been writing while setting Langston Hughes’ poetry. The poem doesn’t rhyme, so it was a fun challenge to try to give the non-rhyming words the rhythmic, melodic cadences we’re used to feeling.
TJG: Speaking of the human voice, I’ve been thinking about how the trombone is one of the closest instruments to the voice, in that interface is so simple and it puts the fewest steps between the breath and the sound.
RK: That’s a good way to put it. People often equate the trombone-voice relationship with register, because the trombone is similar in range to a typical tenor or alto voice, but it’s more than that. We have a slide, so we’re not limited to the same tempered chromatic system. Of course, the whole string family has that too. Another big difference between, say, trombone and cello, is that brass instruments have a potential for resonance that allows them to move air in a powerful way. It’s not so much volume, but more the width and scope of air that moves through the horn, and subsequent vibrations in the room. It’s similar to what happens with the human voice. The best example is when you hear a trombone choir: You’ll never hear a more resonant body of individuals, other than a vocal choir. If you hear a choir sing a major triad, then hear a trombone choir play a major triad, it becomes obvious just how similar they are.
TJG: Because of the mechanical simplicity of the instrument and its powerful resonance, do you feel you’re tapping into something elemental when you play?
RK: [Laughs] I think so. When I was on the road years ago with Sufjan Stevens, there was a keyboardist in the band named Steve Moore, who goes by the stage name Stebmo. He was a great trombonist too. We used to pass the afternoons during soundcheck playing long tones. We’d find an empty hallway or stairwell and play in unison, fifths, octaves, getting into the resonant vibrations. Steve had spent a lot of time thinking about what is physically happening from a scientific standpoint when you have, say, a B-flat and an F resonating together. Each interval has specific beats that are directly related to geometry. The Greek philosophers were totally hip to this, and there’s a direct correlation between how intervals resonate and the way basic geometric shapes are formed. Super interesting stuff, and I love math, so it connected with me. Ever since then, if I’m sitting in an ensemble, playing parts with other people, those resonances have a whole new fundamental meaning for me.
TJG: So with Catharsis, you can paint with a lot of colors. You’ve got people who play multiple instruments, and you have a number of different styles and approaches in your bag. How detailed do your sketches tend to be when you’re in the first phase of composition?
RK: Catharsis started as a chordless group, trombone, trumpet, bass, drums. In its earliest forms, it was extremely limiting in terms of color and timbre, which was good for me as a composer. It forced me to create with less, specifically when it comes to writing harmony. All of the functional harmony that the listener hears comes from three notes played by the bass, trombone, and trumpet. We went from something super limiting to something almost laughable in the amount of timbres and instruments we have on stage: We went from a group that could play on a street corner with no backline to a group that needs like eight outlets, four amps, three microphones [laughs]. That’s the beauty of having a working band: It takes on a life of its own. Each person in the band becomes so committed that they take it in new directions.
When I’m composing in the initial phases, I still approach it along the lines of how I did at the beginning, thinking about the movement of each voice, harmonic movement, the contrapuntal perspective. Then, we workshop, rehearse, and explore these sounds. If I weren’t so fortunate to have a working band, I would probably take a different approach, but because we’re lucky to perform so much, I can let each musician provide their own input as to the specific orchestration of the songs. Camila is playing guitar now, she’s singing, and has this incredible pedalboard setup, with all sorts of possibilities in terms of freezing and looping. Jorge is singing and he has a ton of pedals too, freezing and looping and octaves and harmonizers. I’m singing and playing keyboard too, I have a little Korg minilogue, and Scott of course plays every wind instrument under the sun, even ones that are under the moon, he does it all. The possibilities are vast. For me, it’s more productive to let them dictate where the orchestrations wind up.
TJG: One more question, nodding to the idea of details that you mentioned earlier. At the top of your website, there’s a graphic of interlocking trombone slides. It struck me as such a hip little detail. So cool that you took the time to make it, or get someone to make it, and put it tastefully on your site. Details are so important. As someone with many projects, teaching jobs, and detail-oriented sideman gigs, how do you keep track of the details while staying attuned to the big picture?
RK: That’s a great question. I’ve been focused on the big picture for the last decade of my career because as a younger musician, I never thought about those things. Many of our peers, especially younger musicians, fall into that pattern, because it’s how we teach most music. Yes, those details separate the amateurs from the pros, and make great music what it is. But there’s also that element of the big picture that’s profoundly important, especially when it comes to connecting with a more general audience. The logo is a great example of that: One of the reasons I took the time to do it was because it gives our fanbase yet another entry point into what we do. Visuals today have become such a standard part of the listening process. People are, unfortunately, listening with their eyes more so than their ears these days.
Coming back to the details and the big picture, I usually experience both. Those moments in any song you’ve grown to love, the songs you’ve listened to thousands of times, there are these little momentary musical events that connect with you. For non-listeners, those moments have nothing to do with technique, proficiency, theory. It has to do with how it makes us feel, how it makes us move, how it resonates, coming back to our earlier topic of conversation, how it literally moves the air through and around our bodies. I spent so much time at a young age dealing with those details that nowadays I’m trying to make up for the oversight of that big picture approach. You certainly have to have all of it. That’s what makes jazz so hard to teach, there’s so much to wrap our heads around.
TJG: Well, I’m very excited to hear this album when it comes out!
RK: Thanks! June 28th, it’ll be out on Greenleaf, our fourth album with Dave Douglass’s label, and they’ve been so supportive over the years. We’re super grateful for Dave’s guidance along the way, and the label’s support of creative music. We’ll do a bit of touring, playing at The Jazz Standard in July for our New York CD release party, in the midwest over the summer, and on the west coast in the fall. Leading up to that, we’ll be releasing some singles and music videos, all of which is in the works over the next two months. I’m super excited to get this music out to the world, and can’t wait to share it with you.
Ryan Keberle & Catharsis plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 18, 2019. The group features Mr. Keberle on trombone, voice, & synthesizer; Camila Meza on voice & guitar; Scott Robinson on winds & brass; Jorge Roeder on bass; and Eric Doob 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.