Ryan Keberle: Eight Things I’ve Learned About Jazz Composition and Arranging as a Freelance Trombonist

This was a difficult writing assignment for me. As I tried to decide what to write, I kept thinking about the wealth of resources that aspiring jazz arrangers have at their disposal, including the brilliant pedagogical methods books from people like Ray Wright, Don Sebesky, Bill Dobbins, David Berger, etc.  And, as the ISJAC Blog has made readily apparent, there is also a wealth of knowledge possessed by a new generation of jazz composers like Darcy James Argue and Adam Benjamin who are eager to share their knowledge in eloquent and insightful ways. So I asked myself, what do I bring to the world of composition and arranging that perhaps others may not? Although I’ve had many wonderful teachers over the years and have read many insightful books on the subject, the lessons I most frequently refer to in my own compositional and arranging pursuits come from the enormous amount of time I’ve spent playing trombone in a big band, large ensemble, or even in small groups. This brings up an important yet slightly off-topic discussion on why performance experience is even more valuable than most people recognize in the training of educators. But, we’ll have to save that discussion for another time. For now, I’ll focus on lessons learned that may or may not be included in your typical jazz arranging textbook, or concepts that, when experienced playing in an ensemble, might present themselves differently thus allowing for an alternative point of view.

1. Your Music Should be Fun to Play!! (Learned from every great composer and arranger whose music I’ve had the pleasure to play, including Duke, Sy Oliver, Mingus, JJ, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, David Berger, Maria Schneider, Pedro Giraudo, Darcy James Argue, Miguel Zenon, Sufjan Stevens, et al.)

This seems like such an easy thing to do and, really, if it’s foremost on your mind throughout the creative process, it can be! However, with so much to think about and to consider while composing and arranging, I find that this lesson, (which in my mind is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING when it comes to creating quality music), is oftentimes the first to get overlooked. It’s important to define what I mean by “fun”. I DON’T mean the music has to be tongue-in-cheek or sound like cartoon soundtracks. Sometimes, by just simply providing eight measures of solo improvisation you can make your music fun and satisfying to one of your performers. Fun music means music that is rewarding to play. And, when writing for a highly trained jazz musician, this means music that challenges yet still allows for a performance of swinging, grooving, beautiful music that sounds easy and natural. I’ve played plenty of music that is extremely challenging yet, even when you and your bandmates nail it, the music that results still doesn’t feel good, and probably doesn’t sound all that good either. This brings up an interesting challenge because the ideal solution I’m suggesting is not to simplify what you’ve written or eliminate the more challenging passages. Instead, this challenge is best addressed by singing or, even better, playing through the passage in question while listening for those moments of uncertainty. Once you’ve identified the problem spot it’s usually pretty easy to find a more natural alternative, and that allows for the preservation of the larger musical idea. Other ways I’ve found to make music more “fun” is to incorporate improvisation in non-soloistic ways (see #3 below); write for each instrument using prototypical techniques and phrases; avoid extended periods of rest for the same person; write music with rhythmic nuance (see #2 below); or write music to be performed at a Halloween party for pet owners and their pets (that is my horrible attempt at a joke and also an actual gig I played once…!)

2. Rhythm is Everything (Also learned from every master jazz composer and arranger.)

Whether its swing, straight 8ths, 80’s pop ballads, or Venezuelan 5/8 merengues, this lesson still holds true. Rhythm should always be first and foremost on your mind. And what about rhythm should one think about? That’s easy. One simple question can be your guide throughout the creative process: Does the rhythm FEEL good? It’s important to note that this question and process relies on the composer possessing a certain baseline level of fluency in the musical language and genre within they’re working. Assuming this is the case, the ability to FEEL a rhythm’s personality is of the utmost importance when performing and composing good music. A few specific compositional techniques that I have found to help in creating a rhythm of quality that feels good are a balance of syncopated and downbeat-oriented rhythms; rhythms that contain unexpected moments of movement or elements of surprise; rhythms that contain patterns, both simple and complex; and rhythms that reflect the rhythmic language of the genre.

Something else I often think about is striving for rhythms that sound like they were improvised or rhythms that have a unique personality. Imagine the way Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane would play the melody of a jazz standard. Almost every phrase will have personalized changes – primarily rhythmic variations – making the final product sound a whole lot different from the way it’s notated in a Real Book. (Oh, Real Books. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!)

3. Strive for Balance Between the Composed and Improvised (Learned from David Berger)

My definition of a jazz composer is someone who writes music that balances the pre-composed with improvisation in their music. This is something very much on my mind these days given that the more improvisation one organically incorporates into their arrangement the more fun the musicians will have playing it (full circle back to Lesson #1 above!). Here’s something I wrote in 2015 that demonstrates how improvisation can be incorporated into a jazz arrangement in unorthodox and creative ways. I’ll let you figure out how much of this is improvised, but as a hint, I’ll tell you that with the exception of the intro from 0:00 to 1:35 most of what the band plays is improvised (and even this section we now improvise during live gigs). Yet, you’ll notice that there is very little “solo improvisation.”

“I Thought I Knew” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro

And now, here is the trumpet part to give you an idea of what was pre-composed and what the brilliant Mike Rodriguez added. (Which is always way more hip than anything I could have come up with!)

  

4. Transitions, Transitions, Transitions (Learned from Maria Schneider)

So much of what we’re taught in jazz education deals with details. How to properly notate a chord, the best scale to use over a certain chord (a chord that lasts for all of one measure!), how to feel a 4 over 3 polyrhythm, etc. As a result of this attention to detail, many jazz musicians are challenged when it comes to really hearing and appreciating those big picture aspects of music. One of those aspects is how a composer/arranger travels in real time from one unique musical moment to the next. A great example of the importance of transitions can be heard in Maria Schneider’s Hang Gliding, perhaps her best-known work. So much time is spent studying Maria’s orchestrational techniques, maybe because these are things that are more easily written and discussed. However, I can tell you first-hand that Maria’s primary focus when work-shopping a new piece are the transitions in her arrangement. And there are many different types of transitions – harmonic, rhythmic, metric, timbral, etc. Below, I’ve highlighted just a few of the magnificent transitional moments from Maria’s Hang Gliding.

“Hang Gliding” – Maria Schneider

Transitions occur at 1:05-1:12; 2:38-2:50; 3:36-3:42; 4:10-4:20; 5:48-5:52 and 6:48-7:03 (and that’s just the first half of the piece!). I hope students will spend some time studying how and why these moments are so important in addition to the other brilliant but more quantifiable aspects of Maria’s musical language.

Below is a piece  I recently composed that came to me in one of those magical moments of clarity as an almost fully formed song. The entire piece was written in just one afternoon of improvisation at the piano. However, I found the arranging process to be quite difficult as I struggled with how to turn one chorus of a song into a fully formed arrangement for my band, Catharsis, to perform. It took finding the proper transitional material that allowed for this piece to finally come to life.

“Become the Water” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro

5. It’s All About Counterpoint (Learned from Sufjan Stevens and Pedro Giraudo)

This can mean many different things since counterpoint exists in at least three different general forms: melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic. This lesson really made an impact on me, so much so that I formed a band called Catharsis to focus almost exclusively on counterpoint, or on the interaction between individual musicians all playing single-note instruments. While melodic counterpoint is the type most familiar to musicians (thanks to years of academic coursework!), I find that rhythmic counterpoint is equally important when it comes to composing or arranging in a jazz context. The beauty of counterpoint is that it inherently creates a sense of layered complexity which allows the composer to streamline each single idea thus making for music that is more natural and fun to play (see Lesson #1 above). In fact, with counterpoint, sometimes the simplest of ideas can provide enough interest.

Here’s a great example of the power of counterpoint even when using simple musical ideas over a simple chord progression.

“All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” – Sufjan Stevens

And, here’s another great example of a more traditional Bachian contrapuntal approach in a Latin jazz setting from the brilliant musical mind of Pedro Giraudo.

“Contrapuntren”

6. Create Your Own Language (Learned from Gil Evans)

I think it goes without saying that every definitive composer AND performer, from all genres, possesses a unique voice. This is something for all aspiring composers and performers to be aware of, but it’s also something that can present a clear and present danger when one consciously tries to force the issue, typically leading to unnatural or dishonest music. I hear quite a bit of this nowadays with young musicians thinking they’ve created a unique sound by combining different influences, genres, instruments, etc... I think Mark Twain said it best: “There’s no such thing as a new idea.” But more importantly, quick fixes are rarely, if ever, meaningful and enduring. The most beautiful and astonishingly unique voices in jazz are those who find their language by drawing from the tradition without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel. In my opinion, there is absolutely no arranger with a more definitive voice than that of Gil Evans and yet there is very little he did that hadn’t been done before! Nevertheless, the way in which he takes the tradition and puts his own beautiful magical spin on it all still leaves me breathless. The level of detail; melodic, harmonic, AND rhythmic sophistication; and sheer musical beauty sets Gil’s arrangements apart from all others I’ve played. And as you might expect, the capacity for this music to inspire and impart wisdom seems almost infinite and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. After playing his music a great deal over the past 10 years, it seems to me that it is, in fact, those details that give Gil’s music so much color, so much beauty, integrity, and in the end, such a unique personality.

7. Focus on making your MUSIC good before arranging and orchestrating (from Miguel Zenon)

No matter how great your arranging and orchestration chops, the MUSIC has to stand on its own in order for the final product to delight and satisfy. This might sound obvious when you hear it but it’s such an easy thing to overlook when one begins with the details rather than with the big picture. Before jumping into things like orchestration, instrumentation, mutes, and countermelodies, be sure to remember to focus on how the music makes YOU feel. As the composer, you should feel a deep emotional connection to the music you’ve written. I learned this first-hand when the musical genius,  Miguel Zenon, created a big band a few years ago. Miguel took music that he had composed for his quartet and then arranged those same tunes for big band. Starting with music that he had already perfected –  both on paper and for performance –  allowed for an easy adaptation to big band. He didn’t have to change much of anything when it came to arranging, and simply reorchestrated the music in efficient and smart ways. You can hear one of these songs, Same Flight, first in its original quartet form followed by his big band orchestration below.

Miguel Zenon Quartet, “Same Flight”

Miguel Zenon ‘Identities’ Big Band

8. All Good Music Tells a Story (Learned from Maria Schneider and so many others)

Music can be as simple as a brief moment of tension and release or as complex as a 20-minute Stravinsky masterpiece, but all good music does the same thing that a good poem, novel, movie, dance performance, play, or visual art piece does: It engages the audience in dramatic ways on an emotional level. When you think about common themes between genres or between artistic disciplines you start to notice similar techniques in how quality (versus non-quality) art tells its story. These include memorable beginnings and endings, subtle yet complex characters, thorough yet not over-indulgent character development, moments of surprise, moments of tension and moments of stability. This list could go on and on and I encourage those young aspiring composers and arrangers to focus on learning from other artistic disciplines, including dance, photography, written word, etc.

To exemplify both Lessons #7 and #8, I’ll finish with a music video that my band, Catharsis, recently released. This is our cover of the Bob Dylan protest song, The Times They Are A-Changin. The song has stood the test of time, primarily on it’s lyrical merit, but the melody is infectious and the harmony is simple yet poignant. It is this good music that allowed me, as the arranger, and Catharsis, as the performer, to get creative in our interpretation. It also tells a story not just on a lyrical level but also throughout the development of our arrangement, which mirrors the story that the video director, Claudia Bitran, tells in the moving image.

On a final note, please remember to support recorded and live music in any and all ways you can. There are live music venues, jazz clubs, and performing arts centers around the country, and world, which need support! Not everyone studying jazz in school is going to become a professional musician, and that’s even better because music education is beneficial no matter your path (a topic for another blog post), and creates educated ears and supportive audiences who can decipher between good and great art.   And we need that support now more than ever. Streaming music is not a sustainable model for musicians, and by subscribing to Spotify or Apple Music (and YouTube is even worse) you are hastening the end of musicians’ ability to earn a living by creating music. I hesitated to even offer the above examples on YouTube, given that much of this music is available for purchase in recorded format – so after you get a free taste, go out and buy it! Musicians, artists, and creative individuals play a critical role in fighting the ignorance and greed being spewed from many of our government leaders, most especially from the current administration. The times really are a-changin and we need to do all we can to ensure they change for the better.

“The Times They Are A-Changin” – music by Bob Dylan, arranged by Ryan Keberle

About the Author:

Few musicians have managed to navigate the richly varied avenues of New York City's abundant music scene with the same passion and adaptability as trombonist and composer Ryan Keberle. Since his arrival in 1999, Keberle's diverse talents have earned him a place alongside a staggering array of legends, superstars, and up-and-coming innovators.

Leading his pianoless quartet Catharsis or arranging for the little big band setting of his Double Quartet, Keberle draws upon lessons learned playing alongside masters of a multitude of forms, from jazz legends to indie rock ground-breakers, R&B superstars to classical virtuosos. He has toured with the acclaimed indie rock songwriter Sufjan Stevens and with the ground-breaking big bands of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue; he has accompanied soul hitmakers Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake as well as jazz legends Rufus Reid and Wynton Marsalis; he's been heard on movie soundtracks for filmmakers like Woody Allen and in the pit for the Tony-winning Broadway musical "In the Heights." Keberle's own music integrates those wide-ranging experiences into a highly personal jazz language that pays heed to tradition while searching out fresh and original pathways. Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Keberle was surrounded by music from an early age.

Both of his parents were music educators, his father a jazz trumpeter and professor at Spokane's Whitworth University, his mother a piano teacher and longtime church music director. Keberle started out by studying classical violin and piano before adopting the trombone as his primary instrument; classical music remains one of the many components of his arsenal, as he continues to perform with brass chamber ensembles. He also followed in his mother's footsteps, serving as music director at a Manhattan Catholic church for several years.

Keberle moved east to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where he came under the tutelage of renowned trombonist Steve Turre, as well as composers Mike Abene and Manny Album. He was the sole member of his graduating class chosen to receive the William H. Borden Aware for musical excellence in jazz. In May 2003 Keberle became a member of Jazz at Juilliard's first graduating class, having studied with Wycliffe Gordon and David Berger, whose big band he has worked with over the ensuing years.

In 2007 Keberle released the self-titled debut of his Double Quartet, a malleable, brass-heavy octet that showcased his deft composing and arranging skills, The band's second disc, Heavy Dreaming, was released in 2010 and garnered rave reviews and slots on year-end lists from magazines like JazzTimes and Stereophile.

Early 2012 marked the debut of Keberle's latest group, the pianoless quartet Catharsis, comprising some of the music's most compelling young voices: Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Eric Daub (drums). Keberle's writing for the band reveals his more melodic and emotional side on pieces driven by groove, the blues, and Latin jazz, with which all four members have extensive experience. Keberle has worked with the Pedro Giraudo jazz Orchestra and with Brazilian superstar Ivan Lins, and was named Latin jazz trombonist of the year by the Latin Jazz Corner website in 2008 and 2009.

Both his own compositions and his arrangements of works by other composers evidence Keberle's expansive tastes, which encompass Duke Ellington, The Beatles, Sufjan Stevens, and Ravel, among countless others. His work in the indie rock world, including a world tour with Stevens, has provided the newest fork in what has been an unpredictable career. It has also afforded him the chance to return to the piano, as he has with the singer/songwriter Nedelle Torrisi of the band Cryptacize. But he has also performed with the Saturday Night Live House band and with "Family Guy' creator Seth MacFarlane. His music has taken him to venues across the globe, throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America.

The sum of these eclectic travels is the distinctive, original voice of Ryan Keberle, Whether performing in any one of these vastly different contexts or leading his own band, Keberle continues to evolve into one of the most intriguing and vital musicians of his generation.

  • Paul Read

    As I read Ryan’s excellent article again today, I clicked on the links he provided and feel compelled to write about the comments I read under a few of the links. I guess it just goes with the territory, but the classless and uninformed comments SOME people write on YouTube are – and I don’t think I’m being overly harsh – shockingly dumb/stupid.

    There…I feel better now! Just had to get it off my chest.