Ryan Keberle: Harnessing the Power of Inspiring Music

Like most avid music listeners, music moves me in deeply visceral ways. Listening to music for me is just as physical an experience as it is intellectual, if not more so. The vibrations of Coltrane’s saxophone, the deep grooves of a Brazilian samba band, the emotional expressiveness of a perfectly delivered lyric, the tension, release and drama of a perfectly developed Maria Schneider arrangement, or the resonance of an expertly crafted Gil Evans orchestration, are just a few examples of how very real and measurable aspects of music making can emotionally and physically alter the music listener. Of course, most serious music listeners and musicians are aware of this kind of visceral musical power, however, it has been my experience that many people avoid making the kind of analytical observations mentioned above, perhaps in fear of ruining the musical “magic”.

As I delve deeper and deeper into the world of music creation which includes composition, improvisation, arranging, orchestration, post-production, and performing, I have found it enormously helpful to try and identify specific traits of the music that has profoundly moved me in an attempt to understand how that musical power operates. Why does Jimmy Cobb’s ride pattern FEEL so good and how does it differ from the ordinary ride pattern of aspiring jazz students? Why does Duke Ellington’s music elicit so much excitement and maintain the focus of the listener? Why does the voice of Milton Nascimento almost bring me to tears? I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I have found this process of musical interrogation to be incredibly inspiring and fruitful in my creative process, and l hope to inspire others to perhaps dig a little deeper and listen more carefully and thoughtfully to the music they love.

To that end, I’ve compiled a short list of songs or albums that have moved me in deep and meaningful ways over the past two years, highlighting some of the traits that I found to be creatively inspiring. The result can be heard on our new full-length album, “The Hope I Hold”, featuring the indie jazz ensemble, Catharsis, just released on Greenleaf Music last week.

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Querteto Novo

Every single musician around the world should know this album by heart. It is, in my opinion (and many other Brazilians’) one of the most important genre defining albums of 20th century popular music. On a short list that would include Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Fives and Hot Sevens”, Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, The Beatles’ “White Album”, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”, etc… The music is drawn from the rich folkloric tradition of Brazil, and in particular the African and indigenous influenced music of Northern Brazil, and combines it with jazz in the hands of some of the greatest Brazilian musicians of that time. Two of those musicians, Hermeto Pascoal and Airto Moreira, would go on to make huge contributions to both Brazilian and American music. The album is widely regarded to have helped spawn the genre of Musica Popular Brasileira, or MPB, which has completely changed my life after falling in love with the genre in recent years.

Charles Mingus’ “Reincarnation of a Love Bird”

I might be preaching to the choir with this choice but, of all the great Mingus compositions out there to learn from, this composition is, in my mind, in its own special category. Talk about songwriting genius! Every detail of this extended composition (the tune itself is over 60 measures long!) is so uniquely thoughtful that just when you think you’ve figured out where the song is headed it makes an unexpected turn, constantly challenging the listener to follow along and in return provides such a rewarding listen. From a technical standpoint, this composition sets the gold standard for perfect thematic development on every level - melodic, harmonic and rhythmic. The arrangement changes tempos, meters, etc… in typical Mingus fashion but still feels so natural. The original recording features one of the more inspiring introductions I know of. The tune epitomizes the way in which Mingus pushes me to avoid the road most travelled as a composer and to always search for the best possible songwriting decision at each and every turn. Finally, the song is a great example of what the best jazz should be and almost always is - challenging to play yet so rewarding when done so at the highest level. I wish more current jazz music followed these maxims.

Antonio Loureiro’s album Livre

My good friend and colleague, John Ellis, introduced me to Antonio’s music while touring with Catharsis earlier this year. (side note: I’m not sure there is any better place to discover music than while touring with your favorite musicians!!). Some of you might know Antonio from the work he does playing drums in Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Caimi Brazilian project. However, Antonio is also an unbelievable keyboardist, beautiful vocalist, and absolute genius songwriter and producer. I have not listened to a recording more than I’ve listened to Livre in a very long time. He calls his music Brazilian pop, but to me it sounds like all the things great modern jazz can be in 2019 – sophisticated yet rewarding songs played by virtuosic musicians striving to make the most beautiful music possible. The opening track, “Meu Filho Nasceu!”, a song Antonio wrote dedicated to the birth of his child, gives me goose bumps every time I listen (even after months of daily listening!). The harmony is so fresh yet deeply rooted in the songwriting traditions of jazz and Brazilian music a la Milton Nascimento, Toninho Horta, Hermeto Pascoal, etc…  and the arrangement and production of the track is genius-level good.

Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges’ album Clube da Esquina

This is the album that, along with The Beatles and Duke Ellington, completely changed the trajectory of my musical life more than any other. Technically this was a collaborative project between a number of soon-to-be major forces in the 1970’s Brazilian music scene including Lo Borges, Beto Guedes, and Toninho Horta, but the album is, for all practical purposes, a Milton Nascimento record featuring some of his most magical compositions, unbelievably virtuosic singing and guitar playing, glorious arrangements some of which include a full orchestra, and deeply poetic and insightful lyrics. I can’t imagine the minds that were blown when it came out in 1972 because, almost 50 years later, my mind and body was altered forever when I first heard it, and upon the next one thousand lessons I continue to hear new and compelling details.

JJ Johnson’s “Euro Suite #1”

JJ is, of course, known universally as the most important jazz trombonist in history, and I would whole-heartedly agree. However, what many people don’t know, or are just peripherally aware of, is that JJ was a master composer and arranger. In fact, JJ spent much of the late 60’s and 70’s living in LA composing for Hollywood and television shows including regular contributions to The Mod Squad and The Six Million Dollar Man. JJ’s composing reminds me exactly of his improvising (as it should!) – perfectly crafted to tell a compelling musical story, full of drama, yet utterly refined so as to not include any unnecessary excess or gimmickry.  My favorite composition BY FAR, and something I was deeply inspired by while writing the music for our upcoming Catharsis album, “The Hope I Hold”, is his 6-minute magnum opus, “Euro Suite #1”. Actually, I recently adapted the piece for trombone choir to be performed at this year’s International Trombone Festival in Muncie, Indiana in honor of what would have been JJ’s 100th birthday. I’m told JJ”s widow will be in attendance which is SUPER exciting. This facet of JJ’s career is what has inspired me to develop my craft as a composer and arranger, in addition to instrumental performance technique, and something I return to on a regular basis.

Edu Lobo’s “Uma Vez Um Caso” from his album, Limite das Aguas

The Brazilian singer/songwriter, Edu Lobo, released the tune “Uma Vez Um Caso” in 1976, over 40 years ago, but the composition sounds categorically modern and fresh. Besides being an incredible composition (it reminds of me of Brazilian Mozart in that every detail of the recording is in its perfect place) the music also inspired me to do more singing in my own musical projects. I love the rapport he has with his female vocalist, the equally amazing Joyce, which is something that Camila Meza and I strive to do on our tune, “Campinas”.

Sami Joik Norwegian folk song tradition

- as sung by the Norwegian indie singer/songwriter, Marja Mortennson and her trio with Daniel Herskedal and Jakop Janssonn

I heard Marja and her incredible trio, all based in Norway, perform at the Katowice JazzArt Festival in Poland. I was totally oblivious to the Sami Joik folk singing tradition of northern Norway and was utterly captivated by both the tradition and its interpretation in the hands of Marja, Daniel and Jakop. The tradition, like so many folk music traditions, uses music to tell the story of the Sami people and their culture and history. However, what makes this vocal tradition unique is that it is a word-less music, relying on the expressiveness of the human voice and the power of MUSIC (music does not include lyrics in my definition) to capture the essence of important individuals, family members, etc… of the Sami people. Marja pointed out in their set that while music with words are limited to the specific verbal language used and the serious expressive limitations of that language, the Joik tradition can capture the essence and unique qualities of its subject by relying on the power of MUSIC and SOUND bypassing the limitations of verbal language.

ADDENDUM:

As you might have noticed, many of the artists on this list are part of an incredibly rich Brazilian musical tradition from the late 1960’s and 1970’s called Musica Popular Brasileira, or MPB. Below is a playlist featuring my favorite songs from the MPB genre that I discovered while falling down the rabbit hole that is Brazilian music. These songs, albums and artists have completely transformed my musical world over the past two years.


About the Author:

Photo by Amanda Gentile

Hailed in the Downbeat International Critics Poll as #1 Rising Star trombonist, a player “of vision and composure” according to The New York Times, Ryan Keberle has developed a one-of-a-kind voice both on his instrument and as a composer, earning distinction among jazz’s most adventurous new voices. Keberle’s music integrates his wide-ranging experiences into a highly personal vernacular — immersed in jazz tradition, drawing on world music, rock and other influences, seeking fresh and original pathways. His flagship ensemble, Catharsis, has released five albums, three on Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf Music record label, to worldwide critical acclaim.

In 2017 Catharis turned its attention to political turmoil in the U.S. with the protest album Find the Common, Shine a Light, praised by The Nation as “unpretentiously intelligent and profoundly moving.”

Keberle has also worked in endlessly varied settings with musicians ranging from superstars to up-and-coming innovators, in jazz, indie rock, R&B and classical music. As a featured soloist with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, he collaborated with David Bowie on his 2015 single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” He has performed extensively with the acclaimed songwriter Sufjan Stevens, with Brazilian superstar Ivan Lins, and with the Saturday Night Live house band. He has accompanied soul hit-makers Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake as well as jazz legends Rufus Reid and Wynton Marsalis.