A FEW MINUTES WITH… Ryan Keberle
By J Hunter
If you’ve attended Jazz at the Lake in the past, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Ryan Keberle & Catharsis; you just haven’t seen the band play together! All five members of the second act on JATL 2018’s Saturday schedule (September 15) have appeared at Lake George’s Shepard Park in supporting roles: trombonist Ryan Keberle, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Eric Doob have appeared in various big bands – including Ghost Train Orchestra and Emilio Solla’s La Inestable de Brooklyn – while Camila Meza was fellow vocalist Sachal Vasandani’s secret weapon when he knocked it out of Shepard Park in 2012. (Vasandani returned the favor when he backed up Meza on her scintillating 2016 Sunnyside release Traces.)
Keberle literally crossed my path at a conference I attended in NYC in 2013, introducing himself during a break between panel discussions. I remembered the trombonist from work he’d done on a disc I reviewed for All About Jazz, but until he handed me Catharsis’ Alternate Side release Music Is Emotion, I didn’t know he was a leader and composer. The group was a quartet at the time – a pianoless quartet, which doesn’t happen near as often as it should. I was confronted with fresh, vibrant originals played by a front line that flashed a harmonic that was both indescribable and undeniable. Five months later, the first iteration of my radio show “Jazz2K” debuted on WSPN / Saratoga Springs, and Music Is Emotion was one of the first discs I played.
One year later, Keberle & Catharsis was back in my in-box with Into the Zone – only this time, the band had moved to Greenleaf Music. Greenleaf is uber-trumpeter Dave Douglas’ label, and Douglas does not have time or patience for cowboys or losers. In fact, Into the Zone was one of the first Greenleaf releases that didn’t have Douglas or one of his sidemen as a leader. Zone had more of that unique sound I’d grown to love, but something new had been added: Meza, whose distinctive vocalese made the Catharsis harmonic that much more alluring. Meza also shone in the solo spotlight with her mournful take on “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” a Thomas Wolf/Fran Landesman composition most notably covered by Roberta Flack.
While Meza had mostly a tertiary role on Zone, the Chilean native was right up front on Catharsis’ 2016 release Azul Infinito, Keberle’s brilliant ode to the South American composers he’d grown to love. Azul was a major departure from Catharsis’ past releases, but that’s the kind of chance you can take on a daredevil label like Greenleaf, and the final product was an absolute showstopper. Keberle took another chance in 2017 with Find the Common, Shine a Light, a powerful collection of overtly political compositions that included knockout performances by Meza on Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin’” and Lennon & McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill.” (Three guesses who inspired that cover!)
I was always flattered when Paul Pines would take suggestions from me about bands he should bring to Jazz at the Lake. The last time I saw him before he passed was right after Solla closed JATL 2017, and our final conversation included me pointing at Keberle and saying, “You need to hear his group!” My last email exchange with Paul was when he told me he’d booked Catharsis for this year’s festival. As always, I thanked him for listening. Now it’s your turn.
Keberle was gracious enough to take a few minutes and talk about Catharsis, Find the Common and other assorted subjects:
Q: Not only do you come from a family of musicians, but you come from a family of music educators. Is it a point of pride for you that you’ve carried on those traditions?
A: I never really thought of myself as feeling prideful for having carried on these traditions, and I think that’s because music education has been something I’ve always shared with others. I had my first private trombone student when I was 13 years old! I was leading my high school jazz ensemble #2 when I was 17. Fresh out of college, I was selected by the New York Youth Symphony to start their very first jazz band, and for the last 15 years I’ve been the director of jazz at Hunter College. All of that to say, music education is a major part of my life, and certainly a major part of my family’s life, and I am grateful for that.
Q: You started out on piano and violin, and then found your way to trombone. What inspired you to make that final change, and what musician made you say, “I want to do THAT for a living”?
A: My switch to trombone, or I should say the addition of trombone to my repertoire (I continued to play violin and piano through high school and still play the piano) was due to my father, a jazz professor and trumpet player, who was always in need of trombone players for his own big bands!
Q: You’ve studied with some amazing trombone players – Steve Turre at Manhattan School of Music and Wycliffe Gordon at Juilliard. How would you say they influenced you, both as a player and an educator?
A: Both are such different players and teachers. Steve has a true methodology and, as I was quite young when I studied with him, his tutelage was really good for me instilling discipline and organization. Wycliffe is a total and utterly natural trombonist without the kind of organization that Steve has. However, being in the same room with someone like Wycliffe on a weekly basis rubs off on you when you see how effortlessly he’s able to do what you yourself are striving to do.
Q: Catharsis is a piano-less acoustic quintet. Was it a sound you had in your head for some time when you formed the band in 2012?
A: I think it was less about a particular sound I had in mind and more about specific people I wanted to play with, and specific logistical challenges faced in doing so. So many clubs in New York don’t have good pianos, and some have no pianos at all, so forming a group that was acoustic and “piano-less” allowed us to perform in many different spaces, which we took advantage of early in the band’s career. I knew that Mike Rodriguez, Jorge Roeder and Eric Doob shared the same kind of musical vision that I shared, and we were all invested in the project from the start, which allowed us to build something honest and musically fulfilling.
Q: One of the many things I love about Catharsis is the harmonic you and Mike Rodriguez create. When did you first start playing together?
A: Mike and I have been playing together regularly since 2001! We met and played many, many gigs together in the David Berger Orchestra, and have since performed in countless other ensembles including with Maria Schneider, Samuel Torres and Miguel Zenon, among others.
Q: You signed with Greenleaf Music in 2014. How has it been working for Dave Douglas, and how would you say your move to that label has affected the group?
A: Working with Greenleaf and Dave has been an inspiration and a blast. Dave is so good at what he does on every level, and inspires me to do the same. The label has also helped open some doors, including our first performance at the Jazz Standard and first performance at a European festival!
Q: You also brought Camila Meza into Catharsis in 2014. She had a relatively minimal role on “Into the Zone,” but she was all over “Azul Infinito” and “Find the Common, Shine a Light.” How did her role in the band expand, and how much influence did she have on “Azul Infinito,” which seems very much in her wheelhouse?
A: Having Camila in the band, who is from Chile, and also Jorge, who is from Peru, definitely helped push me through the creative process when working on Azul Infinito. However, my exposure to the music on that record, and into the music of South America in general, came much earlier in my career playing with many amazing musicians from Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and the Caribbean. New York is a magical place in that regard, and those experiences were some of the most formative in my early career.
Q: Political recordings are very thin on the ground in jazz nowadays. Do you think that needs to change, and was there one single thing that inspired you to create “Find the Common”?
A: The single thing that inspired me to create Find the Common was the presidential election in November, 2016. I absolutely think more artists of all kinds should use their platform – albeit a small one in many cases – to make our world a better place, and that includes highlighting injustices in our own country, and calling out those who support those ugly ideals.
Q: What do you remember about your past appearances at Lake George?
A: I last played at the festival last year with Emilio Solla, and Jorge and Eric are also in that ensemble. I was blown away by the beauty and magic of the setting and venue, and also by the excellent quality in programming. We’re very excited to make our debut this weekend!
Q: Of all the big bands I’ve seen you play in, my favorite has to be the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. When did you first join up with them, and what’s it like working for a composer and arranger like Maria?
A: I got the call, more or less out of the blue, to sub for Keith O’Quinn who has been the lead trombonist in the Maria Schneider Orchestra since its inception in 1988. I’ve never practiced any music so hard and internalized music so thoroughly in all my life! Shortly thereafter I was asked to join the band full-time, which I’ll always be grateful for. The gig is still the highlight of my career each time we play, and it has helped me grow immensely as a musician and even as a person!
Ryan Keberle & Catharsis will perform at Jazz at the Lake in Lake George’s Shepard Park at 2:20pm on Saturday (September 15). Admission to the two-day festival is free. GO HERE for more info and the complete performance schedule of bands…