Ryan Keberle’s career is an archetype for the talented, creative musician: featured soloist with Maria Schneider; first-call sub on Saturday Night Live; college professor in NYC; projects at every point along the continuum of genre. And now Reverso, which might at first appear to be a left turn, is really just another expression of his musical depth. The other members of Reverso, perhaps less well known in the US, are a big international deal. Even the sub piano player on this Madison date, Fabian Almazan, is a heavyweight. As our conversation shows, both on and off the instrument, Ryan has a lot to say:
MB: Could you give me just a brief bio of each of the guys in Reverso?
Ryan: I’ll give you a little background on the group and then the bio. Which is – the group performing in Madison is a slight variation on the original – so the original group was formed, I want to say, around five years ago. A pianist based in Paris named Frank Woeste, he and I met on a recording session with Dave Douglas. Dave was doing a recording for subscribers on his record label–on which I record with my other group Catharsis–and for which Dave and Frank also did a record, so we were on the same session. And Frank and I met and got to talking, and I was checking out his music of the time–really loved his compositional style and just kind-of his approach to music making–and I think he felt kind-of similarly about my stuff, so we started talking and wound up applying for this grant called the French American Exchange Grant, and we got it. It’s a pretty – it was a pretty hefty award. So I went to Paris, we recorded in Frank’s Studio–he has like a really beautiful state-of-the-art recording studio in his house. He is really hooked up.
We used a portion of the money to hire Jeff Ballard, who was living in Paris at the time, and we recorded this album called Sweet Ravel. And it was all original music inspired by a piece that Revell wrote called Le Tombeau de Couperin. And it was just kind-of a real meeting-of-the-minds. Frank and I both have a long history with classical music, in kind-of another musical life. And those experiences influenced, you know, our current approach working in a more traditional jazz setting–I think both compositionally and in terms of how we approach our instruments. So there was that. And I think we also have a lot of similar tastes, just in terms of current jazz trends, he and I are both huge Brad Mehldau fans, and I think it was a lot of shared interests, so it just worked really well. I mean, those kinds of grant projects often times come and go, but this one stuck, and we did a ton of touring both in Europe and here in the US, and got to talking last year–we had a few free days in Paris in the midst of a tour–and decided to do another record. So we did a second record and this time we did it just as a trio without drums, for a number of reasons.
It was partly just logistics, you know, it was getting to be a little bit expensive to have four people if we didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary given the amount of touring we were doing. And also we were finding – we were having a lot of success – especially here in the US – targeting chamber music and classical music venues who are, often times, looking for more crossover groups and looking to connect with different audience tastes and backgrounds, so we wanted to explore that. And the one thing we found with these classical music series was every time they saw the drum set on the rider they would kind-of freak out a little bit, you know, it’s like “we see the connections, but there’s a drum set for god’s sake, how can this be classical music!” You know, so we thought we’d kinda just continue to pursue that road. And without the drums this new record that we’re releasing–this Friday actually [Feb., 14, 2020]–is, I think – I mean from my perspective, aesthetically speaking, a classical music album. I mean it’s trombone, cello, and piano, it sounds like some kind-of piano trio hybrid instrumentation, but of course it’s all original music by Frank and I. It’s heavily improvised, still all the same kind-of – it’s still the same music he and I always make. I don’t think I personally feel like I’ve changed anything in terms of my approach, it just happens to kind-of have this kind-of classical sound, especially without the drums, and also without the bass. From the beginning without that bass it kind-of changed things up a bit in terms of our instrumental roles.
So that record’s coming out–we’re super proud of it. We kind-of continue down that – Reverso the whole name of the band – the concept of the band is this idea of looking at the kind-of reverse influences that the jazz and classical world have on each other – both in terms of, historically speaking, with the way that Ellington was being influenced by Ravel and then was similarly influencing, you know, Stravinsky and other – other European, Western European composers and many examples of that. And I think still to this day there’s a lot of shared influences there, and I think even more so now you have a lot of musicians who were – who are actively performing in both classical or new music worlds and jazz worlds. So the group is kind-of looking to – to highlight those trends and to use those trends in our music making. So this album, kind-of following that trajectory, is all music influenced by this group of composers in early 20th century Paris called Les Six. And that included a few that a lot of jazz musicians know like Darius Milhaud, who was Dave Brubeck’s composition teacher, who settled in the Bay area later in his life. And to Francis Poulenc, and then some lesser known composers including the sole female member of the group named Germaine Tailleferre. And actually all the compositions I wrote–that I contributed for this album–were influenced by her and her music.
So we have a new album out it’s now just a trio, same cellist as was on the first record, his name is Vincent Courtois and he is, in Europe, considered to be one of the foremost, if not the foremost improvising cellist in the jazz world. He has his own projects that tour around Europe regularly and play major jazz festivals; ECM recording artist and what not. This actually will be his first appearance with us here in the US, we just finally got him a work visa, so that’s super exciting. I’m excited to have US audiences hear him play because he is a force of nature on the instrument; just an incredible virtuosic cellist. But also with the kind-of improvisational creative streak that, you know, you’re great jazz musicians tend to have, so that’s really exciting. And then I mentioned that the iteration is a little bit different in Madison. For a few of our our tour dates were going to be joined by another phenomenal pianist based in New York named Fabian Almazan, and I’m sure you and your – your readers or audience members probably know of, he’ll be filling in for Frank. Frank is the music director for a major jazz star in Europe named Ibrahim Maalouf. And something came up he just couldn’t turn down, so he’s missing a few dates. But yeah we’re super fortunate that Fabian could join us. He’s one of my favorite pianists of our generation for sure–incredible music–has his own label called Biophilia–really just doing amazing things in every way. He’s best known for, these days, for his work with the Terence Blanchard Ensemble – has been playing with him for 10 years, but does a lot of really interesting things, incredible pianist. And so that’s – that’s going to be fun. We’ve never actually performed a gig where Frank and I weren’t both on the gig, since we’re co-leaders and kind-of co-creators, so I’m excited, actually. We’re doing a number of gigs with Fabian–the Madison gig won’t be the first. It’s certainly going to go in different directions but it’ll sure be equally kind-of enjoyable. So that’s basically the group in a nutshell–the history and a little bit on the three musicians that will be there in Madison.
MB: Is Vincent also based in France?
Ryan: He is. He is a born-and-bred Parisian. He is about the most Parisian of people I’ve ever met in the best of ways, is classic, classic Parisian Frenchman. And actually he doesn’t play in the US that often but he released an album with – he’s got a really cool group that’s cello and two tenor saxophones and they released another album this past – I want to say late spring, early summer, and did a pretty significant tour on the west coast. So he has been here recently but certainly not that often – that was the first time he’s been here in quite some time so – and of course the work visa’s like the major obstacle for all these guys. We were able to get one for Frank a couple years ago. But that’s, you know, an incredibly tedious and expensive process to do. But we got it and I’m looking forward not only to this tour with Vincent but hopefully to some more before the three-year visa expires down the road.
MB: Can you talk a little bit about – especially when you’re improvising – the difference in the vocabularies maybe that exist sort-of between the jazz idiom and the 20th century classical idiom? Do you combine those vocabularies intentionally or – do you feel there is a distinction or is there a sort of a seamlessness between the two?
Ryan: That’s a great question. It’s something I’ve certainly thought about over the years improvising within these more classically kind-of set pieces. But I will say, for me, my approach to improvisation, I think, works well for the setting here, where – where I certainly wouldn’t want to bring in a traditional jazz vocabulary, you know, quoting the bebop language or Kurt Rosenwinkel language. I mean it would feel out of place, just aesthetically speaking, it would definitely feel out of place. For me, you know, one of the big things that I’ve always kind-of thought about when I’m improvising, and certainly something I do with my students – I’m a – I’m an active teacher and professor at a university here in New York, and been teaching improvising–or trying to teach improvisation–for a really long time, basically my whole adult life. My father is a jazz educator as well, so it kind-of runs deep. And it’s – it’s obviously an incredibly challenging thing to teach. It’s a relatively new kind-of subject and concept, and everyone is still trying to figure it out. But one of the things I, oftentimes, have my students do–especially those students without a significant jazz background–is get them to improvise using the languages that they are familiar with. Whether it’s a guitarist using the language of Van Halen or, you know, a trombonist using the language of, like, Rousseau etudes, whatever it might be. Getting people to realize that the act of improvisation isn’t just about the language because, of course, that is, in many ways, the most overwhelming part of becoming a jazz musician is to master that language and become fluent in it.
But the act of improvisation is a separate creative process all together. And so for me – and I really – and I think this might also stem from the kind-of ridiculous amount of time I spent playing in big bands over the years as well, or playing other people’s music, is I’m always trying to channel the musical setting and musical character of the piece at that moment, when I’m taking solo. So with that approach, for me personally, I don’t find there to be too many issues improvising in this more classical setting, as opposed to a jazz setting. I do have to, from time to time, kind-of catch myself if I’m about to jump into some, like, bebop lick or something, you know, but over the years that’s become less and less frequent I think. But yeah, I mean it’s an interesting thing to think about. I would be curious to hear Frank’s answer, it’s something I’ll have to ask him when we’re on the road – it’s – it’s definitely something, you know, that I’ve thought about because it isn’t totally seamless and certainly for someone who is used to speaking a more traditional jazz language, I think they might find it difficult, on some level, to blow over some of these – these improvising sections that we’ve created in Reverso.
MB: I could see that definitely being, I don’t know, not problematic, but certainly difficult for inexperienced improvisers.
Ryan: Yeah, or just someone who – it could be someone who’s super experienced, but just with one particular genre, you know, and that definitely is a significant segment of our jazz world. And nothing wrong with that at all, but for me personally, and I – I see this as a trend maybe throughout our generation and especially New York where there are so many different experiences being brought to the table. You know, everyone is trying to expand the vocabulary, even if it’s not a conscious effort, I think. Really the great improvisers of our day are people who have almost transcended genre with their vocabulary, whether it’s through some kind-of rhythmic genius, or through some kind-of just utterly unique harmonic approach. It – you know, many of the people who we kind-of hold up in – in high regard these days as improvisers, I’m thinking like Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Miguel Zenon, Joe Lovano, they all kind-of have such unique languages that they really do kind-of transcend genre. They’re able to function in almost any setting, you know.
MB: In two of my ensembles I feature the trombone prominently and, in fact, my son is a trombone player. But for those who don’t have so much trombone in their lives, tell us what are the intrinsic properties of the trombone either that, you know, you were attracted to as an artist or how – how it captures the music that you’re trying to play.
Ryan: Well, I think the trombone is one of those instruments that brings out a love-hate relationship in its practitioners because the trombone is inherently cumbersome and really not built for the modern jazz language in terms of the higher-faster-louder kind-of approach that – that you oftentimes hear. Or even – I mean it’s really not anything new, even the bebop language itself is predicated on a very small subdivision–16th note-based lines–lots of notes, fast notes, very virtuosic playing. It’s just not easy to do that on trombone. It is definitely one of the most difficult instruments to translate a modern jazz vernacular to. But with that being said, I mean, that’s kind-of been the story of the jazz trombone over the last 60 years is: every generation, people just keep getting closer and closer, and of our generation people are doing things on the trombone that, you know, even maybe, say, some trumpet player, or saxophone player might not be able to do. I mean they’re – there are true virtuosos out there who have completely broken down those walls, but it’s certainly not the norm.
On the flip side there are things the trombone can do that – that really very few other instruments can do, because of the slide and how that allows us to create these glissandos, from one note to the next, that really only string instruments and the human voice are capable of. And for me, I mean, I am a real student of the history of our music and, you know, the first great improviser, Louis Armstrong, was really just playing on the trumpet what he sang. And I think you can trace back, really the majority of our language, to instrumentalists just, basically, trying to be as expressive as what their vocal counterparts were able to do. And, you know, when you’re playing piano that is really difficult to do, like a piano is such a – such a rigid, codified instrument. When trying to mimic a vocalist, like, forget about it. but the trombone – we’re really fortunate we’re able to – it’s a very expressive instrument. And for me, I’ve always been torn between those two worlds of trying to become more virtuosic in my language just because, I think generally speaking the jazz language has become more virtuosic, but also I’ve – I really love that expressive quality, and I love the history of our instrument, and the players throughout history who have embraced the more expressive side of our instrument. So, you know, I think for me I as – as a younger person that oftentimes did create this kind-of love-hate relationship, and lots of frustrating moments in the practice room.
But I would say, over the last few years, I kind-of just – whether I’ve come to grips, or maybe I’ve just kind-of gotten to a point where the technical demands are not quite so frustrating for me, I’m not sure what it is, but I feel like I’ve found a balance between those two worlds. And I think that maybe, more than any other musical setting, Reverso allows me to express that, because, really, when you think about chamber music–classical chamber music–it is some of the most expressive music making you’ll find especially – well I was going to say especial as an ensemble – but also individually. But, you know, there’s this idea of a – where even tempo isn’t necessarily – isn’t even necessarily set in stone. Where even tempo, with a chamber music that kind-of breathes and plays together, can bend all the rules and can really create their own, you know, ensemble expression within a – within a piece of music. And so we try to do that in Reverso. And I think in my own soloing I, kind-of, channel that as well–just a very expressive, very dramatic style of playing. And I think the trombone and cello both are perfectly suited for that type of music making.
MB: Yeah, they do seem, to me, to have timbral consistencies, or something, between those instruments.
Ryan: Big time. Big time. I tell most people I’m doing interviews with for the project that one of my favorite things to do as a composer is just write unison lines for the cello and trombone, because there’s really nothing better than just hearing those two instruments play the same melody the same rhythm because – it’s crazy. Usually, you know, when you take orchestration classes you’re taught to try to find resonant intervals and when you’re trying to create a sound larger than the individual parts you want to think a lot about register and resonance. But with the trombone and cello it’s, like, you can’t go wrong. They can literally play the same note, and in any register, and the whole room just starts to buzz with resonance. It’s really – it’s incredible, it’s super fun. So the listeners will definitely hear a lot of that. But the coolest thing about Reverso is, without the bass, and now especially without the drums, all three of our roles are completely interchangeable. I’ll be playing – and I think just the roles themselves are maybe blurred because of the classical influence – but I’ll be playing what is effectively a baseline at one moment, Vincent might be carrying the melody on the cello and the next thing you know, you know, Frank is playing some kind-of like ostinato pattern kind-of filling in for the drums. Meanwhile, I’m up in the upper register playing a melody, and Vincent’s holding down the bass. Like, it can go anywhere so it’s – it’s been really fun to explore. I feel like we really just scratched the surface.
MB: Actually, yeah, that does seem conceptually very interesting. I mean lots of groups that you see these days will sort-of be eliminating parts of the traditional, say, quartet or whatever, and I always wonder if it’s sort-of an intentional disruption, or is it in search of a certain sound or expression. I guess we’ll find out, really!
Ryan: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I think, well certainly – in the case of our group part of it was logistics. Part of it is – I think, oftentimes – maybe more than anything, is oftentimes personnel. And it’s like you get the right personnel, nowadays with master jazz musicians, it really doesn’t matter what instruments are onstage, you know, it’s like “great music will be made” and it’s fun to kind-of – almost in an experiment like setting – just kind-of see what happens. And we’ve been really, really happy with the results, even without the drums. I mean there are certain songs from our previous record that we just won’t play anymore because we don’t have the drums. That is what it is, but there are other songs that we continue to play, in that we’re discovering new directions and new possibilities without there being a drummer in the band.
MB: It’s almost like you get the right voices in the right place at the right time–you can’t go wrong.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I love that because that’s really more of an arranging, or orchestrational, you know, approach and that’s really one of my – my loves beyond composition and trombone playing. I love – I love the art of arranging. You know, having played so many big band gigs with Maria Schneider, and playing the music of Gil Evans and Duke Ellington–those are really my formative experiences–and still to this day are some highlights of my musical career. And there’s something about playing perfectly orchestrated, or perfectly arranged-constructed music that for me I – I just – I really – I really get a lot out of that.
MB: So from Spokane in eastern Washington, to Manhattan School of Music–and now I guess 20 years in New York City–how did you navigate this? Did you have champions along the way or – I mean granted talent, of course – or was it champions along the way, or was it grit and force of will?
Ryan: [Laughs] I think everyone who has lasted in New York for 20 years, regardless of the profession, definitely has a certain amount of force of will, because it is not an easy place to live – to live your life, that’s for sure. But no, I was really, really lucky over the years. I think in terms of the musical story, one of the things that really allowed me to last – it’s really just about longevity in New York – it takes – I tell my students it takes at least ten years to really be established, and be doing the things that you set out to do. But ten years living in a – in a city where, you know, rents are well over $2,000 a month now for a one-bedroom apartment, like, that’s just hard to do. So you just got to figure out a way to survive and last long enough. And so, for me, I think it was all about versatility, not only on the trombone and playing orchestra gigs one night, and playing a Broadway show the next, and subbing on SNL the next day, and then doing a tour to Colombia with a Latin band the next week. I mean, truly playing almost every kind of music you can possibly think about, it all exists in New York.
But also, I’m a piano player and a violin player–as a younger person I was a very active violin player–and the gig that really got me through those hardest years, financially speaking, you know, right out of school – very little work – was playing piano and singing at a Catholic Church in lower Manhattan. It was a full-time gig, you know. I was down there every Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. and would play three english masses and a spanish mass–I didn’t speak Spanish at all, you know. In fact, I wasn’t even catholic. I had to learn the whole liturgy, I mean, it was a serious crash course. But that really paid my bills for, like, seven or eight years. And it allowed me to survive and last and just continue to develop that network that would eventually lead to more opportunities in the jazz world. So, I think, the versatility was key for me, but I also had enormous fortune to meet some incredible mentors along the way.
And the first was David Berger; incredible Duke Ellington scholar and great composer, arranger and he has had a big band for most of his adult life I – probably 50 years now, off and on. And when I joined the band people like Jerry Dodgion, the original alto saxophonist with Thad Jones / Mel Lewis orchestra, was in the band. I mean that was where I was learning how to play this music, way more than any kind of university setting. Bob Millikan on lead trumpet, Jimmy – the drummer was the guy that played with Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra – Jimmy, I’m having a mind fart right now I’ll think of it in a second [Jimmy Madison]. But the best: Denis Irwin on bass.
I sat right next to Denis Irwin for over ten years on a regular basis, just swinging, you know, and man talk about an education. So, you know, that was a huge, huge break. I mean, it wasn’t paying the bills, but meeting people and just getting the real education: the language from the source is an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. Other mentors and kind-of Champions: another big one for me was Lenny Pickett in the SNL band I – very, very early on, had the opportunity to sub for Steve Turre and got to know Lenny. And since then I’ve been the regular sub in that band for like 15 years now, and Lenny has been one of the few people in my life who will really give me honest, harsh criticism and feedback if I asked for it, you know. He’s just a real straight-shooter and has been a real mentor over the years and inspiration. And then, certainly, last but not least, the great Maria Schneider. And that was kind-of my first, like, big gig–regular gig–and that was almost 14 years ago now. And really, ever since then she’s been, not to make her sound old, but almost like some kind-of motherly figure to me. I mean, really, you know, my parents live in eastern Washington, I see them like once a year, you know. Maria is just, on every level, both personally, certainly on a musical level, as a band leader as a composer, as an arranger, I really owe maybe more to her than anyone on every level. She is just an incredible inspiration for me and someone I still count as an inspiration, a mentor, and very good friend these days. So yeah, I mean it’s like, really, just without those people, I definitely wouldn’t be here talking to you now.
MB: You mentioned that you’re a professor, where do you teach?
Ryan: Yeah, I’m a part of the CUNY university system, and there are well over 20, four-year and two-year schools under that umbrella, some really great schools. The university I teach at is called Hunter College and it’s a four-year public university on the upper east side, and one of the strongest liberal arts kind-of academic universities within the CUNY system, so we get a lot of very bright kids–very motivated kids. Most of our kids are first- or maybe second-generation of their families to ever go to college. Many of them are first- or second-generation immigrants to this country. So needless to say, incredibly hard workers. Many of them are paying their own ways through college. So it’s a very different environment than my college experience, which was at conservatories, and, you know, a lot of the kids just, like, had no idea how good they had it–definitely a little bit – little bit spoiled and entitled. So to work with kids like this at Hunter, is just – it’s really almost easy, in a way, because there’re very few issues you have to deal with. Everyone wants to be there, everyone wants to learn. It’s been a great place, and I’ve been there a long time. I started as a part-time adjunct teacher and I’ve been full-time for, I guess, eight or nine years now. I’ve been – this is my 16th year at Hunter.
And we’ve built a little jazz program, and it’s small but it’s mighty. We have some really – really strong small groups and some great faculty. Of course, being a New York we always have some really great private teachers and part-time educators for some of our other jazz related classes. So it’s been a great place for me and especially, like I said, I come from a music education family, even my grandparents were music educators, so it’s always kind-of run in the family and something that I think I have an affinity for. And it’s been a good place for me to kind-of develop, as I mentioned, this jazz pedagogy because I feel like there’s so much more to learn in terms of best practices when it comes to teaching jazz–especially when it comes to teaching improvisation and the language. So it’s been a really – has been a really great place for me to kind-of workshop that. And a lot of the touring that I do both with reverso and also my other project Catharsis is supplemented by workshops. Wherever we are, we’ll do workshops at local universities, so between those two – those kind-of two parts of my life, I definitely spend a lot of time thinking about, you know, how we’re going to carry this music on to the next generation in the most authentic form possible.
MB: Do you have any workshops scheduled in the Madison area?
Ryan: Unfortunately we don’t. I would have loved to, it just didn’t work out. I don’t have many contacts–personal contacts–I certainly reached out to all the local educators, just nothing came of it. We’ve done things in Wisconsin. I don’t think I mentioned but both sides of my family are from Wausau, Wisconsin. My mom’s parents were music educators. My grandpa was the local band director, my grandma was the local choir director. So deep, deep roots in Wisconsin. I’m there all the time, like, at least a couple times a year. Big Packer family – go to a Packer game at least once a year. So I have done a lot of stuff in Wisconsin over the years. We did a residency with my group Catharsis at UW Stevens Point a couple years ago, and yeah we’ve definitely done things in the Wisconsin area but unfortunately nothing this time in the Madison area.
MB: We’ll have to keep that on the radar maybe for the next time you come through.
Ryan: Yeah, I would love to, always down.
Michael Brenneisis a drummer, composer, and improvisor based in Madison, Wisconsin. A volunteer blogger for BlueStem Jazz, he wants everyone to know that he’s a musician, not a journalist.