Structured improv

Trombonist takes classical approach to jazz

All genres are invited to the stage with jazz quintet Ryan Keberle (center) and Catharsis.

All genres are invited to the stage with jazz quintet Ryan Keberle (center) and Catharsis.

Photo by John Rogers

Chico Performances and Uncle Dads Art Collective present: Ryan Keberle and Catharsis Sunday, April 15, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $22 ($10 students)
Zingg Recital HallChico State

Part of what makes live music so powerful is the physical sensation of sonic energy moving through space, says Ryan Keberle. When he pushes air through his trombone, he’s creating sound waves that listeners can feel resonating inside themselves.

“Sound moves our physical bodies,” Keberle said. “When you go see a jazz performance, there’s some pretty sophisticated sonic resonance happening on stage that people in the audience can feel. They may not be aware of it, but it changes the way they experience the music and it’s not something you can get from a record.”

As something of a rock star trombonist and composer out of New York City, Keberle tends to think deeply about music in general and jazz in particular. In addition to sound waves, he’s fascinated by the way jazz has evolved since its inception in the speakeasies of New Orleans, Chicago and New York. Whereas musicians used to pick it up by listening to records, sharing handwritten sheet music or simply jamming together, it’s become a far more academic discipline over the years.

“Now, we have two generations of musicians who learned jazz in conservatories and institutions,” he said. “That academic setting has played a profound role in influencing the direction jazz has taken, because most of these conservatories also teach classical music. It’s only natural that you’d have musicians overlapping and participating in both genres.”

Speaking to the CN&R from his lakeside cabin in the Catskill Mountains in New York, Keberle said his flagship ensemble, Catharsis, merges the two art forms in a subtle way. Listeners probably won’t hear much classical-sounding stuff during the quintet’s set at Chico State’s Zingg Recital Hall (Sunday, April 15), which will touch on South American folk and indie-rock, as well as traditional jazz. But Keberle approaches the arrangements with the mindset of a classical composer, meticulously notating each musician’s parts.

Keberle was raised in a musical family and was classically trained from an early age. Over the years, he’s had various stints in rock, folk, funk, Latin and hip-hop groups, and he’s performed with musicians ranging from David Bowie to Alicia Keys.

“You name it, I’ve had the opportunity to play just about every style of music that exists in New York City,” he said, “and that’s been hugely influential in very deep and real ways, ways that are hard to describe or measure. Music is a part of me.”

As a composer, Keberle places great emphasis on melodic invention, using his deeply ingrained musical instincts as a guide. Though the trombone is his performance instrument of choice, the piano is his main compositional tool. He said it’s a subconscious process, something akin to speaking a native language.

“For me, playing in all these different musical arenas has been like living in many different foreign countries,” he said. “When I’m composing, I’m drawing from all of the musical languages I have inside of me. I’m generally improvising and trying to get in a creative state of mind where I can kind of speak music, hopefully uninhibited by outside distractions and self-critique.”

After playing something he likes, he’ll whip out his smartphone and record the phrase or progression, and when it’s time to make a record, he’ll revisit those captured musical moments to flesh them out in a more structured way.

“Really, I’m trying to balance that large-ensemble mentality of notating everything and being specific about what I want my musicians to play with the small-group mentality of spontaneity and letting each musician’s personality shine through,” he said. “It’s about balancing those two worlds, because they both have so much to give an audience.”