Artist Blog

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.

https://ffm.to/ryankeberle

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.

 

Artist Blog

Adam Benjamin: Some Thoughts on Listening

Hello again! Since I wrote one of the first blog posts for ISJAC about a year ago, all sorts of people that are way smarter and more experienced than I am have told you all the real stuff about life and chords and concerti and stuff. So I’m going to steer clear of those areas so as to not embarrass myself. Let’s talk about Listening.

So, there’s this tendency that has is present throughout approximately 100% of human history. This tendency is that as Young people become Middle-Aged people, they tell the new Young people that they’re doing things wrong. This helps Middle-Aged people feel like they are Smart and helps them feel better about not being Young anymore. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong, but most of the time it’s worth considering what they are saying. Young people, use your own set of values and ethics to determine if they are right or wrong. If they’re wrong, be nice about it, they have enough to worry about already. Someday you, too, will be Middle-Aged person! So be kind.

This tendency is exaggerated in times of great change, like now. So we shouldn’t be surprised that, on the topic of Listening to Music, there is much Kvetching on the part of Middle-Aged people regarding the habits of Young people. I, myself, have Kvetched about this! But, I am one of those Middle-Aged people that still likes to imagine that somehow deep inside I am still Young, so I shall try to mitigate this tendency, and not get too preachy. Here is my attempt at an honest and impartial Listening Guide.

1) Do It

If you are not listening to music at all, that is bad. How much listening to music you should do is up to you. Everyone is different. I can’t listen as much as most people because when I listen to music I am emotionally, cognitively and spiritually overwhelmed approximately 100% of the time. It’s just how I am wired. But I still need to engage, even when it hurts.

2) Listen to Not Music

2a) Have you heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea Of North”? There’s a part where he makes connections between Bach counterpoint and the multiple simultaneous conversations occurring in a diner. That blew my mind when I was 10, and I still love the idea. Right now I’m in a coffeeshop beside a river and there are people talking, and the whooshing and grinding of coffee machines, and footfalls, and keyboards clicking, and on the stereo, “Summertime” is being played quietly on a soprano sax (well actually, being played loudly but turned far down in the mix) over some generic world percussion sounds. Most of the individual elements are pretty awful actually, but the way all the different sounds in the room blend together is somehow pleasant. Listen to this! 

2b) Think about the physical space you are in, the materials it’s constructed from, and how it changes the sound. Maybe there was an architect or acoustician who even did it on purpose! Really listen, actively listen. I find it useful to imagine a visual meter of the kind you see on mixing boards (back when those were a thing). Frequency is on the X-axis and Amplitude on the Y-axis. What frequencies are present, and missing, in your room / world right now? Which are loudest? How is it changing? If you really want to trip out, add a Z-axis for time and see if you can visualize the patterns (rhythms) in 3 dimensions. Whee!

2c) Also, listen to birds.

3) Feel It

Lost in many discussions about how we, as musicians and composers, should listen to music, is Feeling it. This makes sense because we have to Study music as well as Feel it. We have to take our beautiful lover and Dissect him on a clean and sterile surface, under a bright light. Yuck! But, not Yuck, because we find amazing things in there, and we learn so much, and we can put him back together afterwards. But all this Learning is useless if we become unable to Feel music. So in addition to all the Dissecting we must also be Immersing and Loving and Living. At some points in your life, this is so easy for you, that you don’t even realize it’s a thing. At other points, it must be gently or forcefully rekindled. How to get there is up to you. Listening to something you don’t Understand is a good method. Maybe listening to the things you loved when you were 16. Maybe listening on headphones on top of a mountain.  Maybe you need to be totally alone for like 3 days. Be careful, but do what it takes. If you’re not Feeling, things get out of whack.

4) Don’t Mistake the Information for the Music

This is related to #3. As trained musicians, we can hear what Notes are being played and what Time Signature a song is in and whether the bass player has bad intonation in thumb position. This is fine but it is not Music. Think of everything that has been written about Coltrane, how much that music has been studied. Do we really know its secrets? To be clear, studying music is crucial for performers and composers, and musicology is a beautiful thing. But don’t forget that we are only studying the structural attributes of a force that we deeply, fundamentally, do not understand. This is not a science. Don’t forget this. Our brains are so well-trained to decipher all the different levels of Information, that sometimes we must turn our attention away from the Information, and towards the Music.

5) Listening is Consumption

Remember that if you consume a recording without remunerating the creator(s) of the recording, you are saying that either (1) you will pay them later, (2) someone else will pay them, (3) they have enough money to keep making recordings, or (4) you don’t care if they can keep making recordings. I’m not going to lie — I sometimes use YouTube, and Spotify, and Apple Music, and Tidal, even if I know it’s bad for artists. I think the accessibility of music on the Internet is too wonderful to resist, and is an incredible tool, especially for students and others who simply cannot afford to remunerate the creators. But please, keep in mind that counting on people creating great content for you to consume without you paying them is a bad idea. Maybe we will move towards a patronage system, or greater institutional support, or better deals with the corporate gatekeepers, but none of that is in place now. Please don’t create a future in which only rich kids can make albums.

6) I Am A Middle-Aged Person

6a) From approximately 1951 to approximately 2006, the standard format of a piece of recorded musical art was an “LP”, which usually lasts somewhere between 35 and 72 minutes and is usually divided into somewhere between 4 and 20 parts, or “songs”. There is nothing objective about this format, and it was the direct result of the technological innovations and constraints of its time. But it was the format in which these pieces of recorded musical art were conceived, like chapters of a book, photographs in an exhibition, or movements of a symphony. Playlists are great and singles are great and shuffle is great and remixes are great and outtakes are great. But, please, spend at least some of your listening time experiencing these works in the format in which their creators conceived of them.

6b) Maybe you think you can’t tell the difference between 256k mp3s and 512k MP3s and AIFFs and WAVs and CDs and OGGs and FLACs, but you can! You totally can. Please consult #4. Just because no Information is missing, or the missing Information is deemed to be insignificant by Technology Corporation, does not mean that you don’t Feel the difference. Maybe the part of “A Case of You” that makes you cry is located at 28.5khz and when that gets flattened you don’t cry the same way. Every device sounds different, every format sounds different. Also, the way we experience music depends on our relationship with the device that plays it for us. Do you really want the thing that sends you annoying work emails and depressing eHarmony results also being your source of spiritual sustenance?

6c) Liner notes are so important. They made every album an interdisciplinary work. Don’t trade that in for an indistinct thumbnail image.

6d) Hey! You’re doing too much stuff all the time, too much stuff at once. You’re training your brain to not be at peace, to not be able to focus on something and fully engage it. Think about how often we “check” something — check the news, check our email, check our texts. You don’t need to “check” stuff so much, everything is going to be fine. The part of your brain that was designed to tell you if a bear is going to eat you is being hijacked by Technology Corporation and retrained to obsessively check your Instagram comments. Dude — Technology Corporation is making Hell Of Money! And now you can’t concentrate long enough to read a book. Use your music-listening time as an opportunity to focus 100% on one thing.

7) Context

I’ve noticed that for every little teensy bit I learn about Art, and Film, and Art Theory, and Philosophy, and Literary Theory, and History, and Linguistics, and Mathematics, my ability to understand, enjoy, and access various musics expands tenfold. Don’t shut out the rest of the world, it makes music richer and funner and more beautiful.

8) I Could Go On

There’s so much more to say. I’ve omitted basically everything. I was gonna talk about Paul Motian and Aphex Twin and trees. But I have to walk my dog, and a storm is rolling in. Just remember, the whole point of Art is that is makes people Feel things. That’s approximately 50% job of creator and 50% job of listener. So! Put all the time and love and focus and joy that you put into making music into listening to it, and we should be good. And, stop checking your phone — the bear is not going to eat you.

About the Author:

Adam Benjamin
Adam Benjamin is a Grammy-nominated and critically acclaimed pianist, keyboardist, composer and educator. He is a founding member of the band Kneebody and is the director of the Program for Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Nevada, Reno. Recognized as a “Rising Star in Jazz” in Downbeat magazine’s critic’s and reader’s polls for seven years running, his unmistakable sound crosses stylistic boundaries and challenges traditional notions of jazz. Adam maintains a humble and humorous approach that connects him with his audiences worldwide.

You can stay up to date with Kneebody at kneebody.com.