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Before & After with Ryan Keberle

Pan-American crosspollination and the trombone

Ryan Keberle
Ryan Keberle (photo: Pedro Nogueira)

“It’s amazing how versatile the trombone is, and can be, and will continue to be,” Ryan Keberle said about the state of his instrument circa 2022. “Trombone is achieving new heights from a technical standpoint, doing things no one thought possible 30 years ago.”

The 41-year-old maestro had just endured his first Before & After, comprising primarily Brazilian music played by fellow practitioners, in line with the subject of his latest album, Sonhos da Esquina, a meditation on the tonal personalities of Toninho Horta and Milton Nascimento recorded in 2017 with Collectiv do Brasil, featuring a rhythm section from São Paulo. It’s one of Keberle’s several units, which include the chordless ensemble Catharsis, whose sixth and most recent album, 2019’s The Hope I Hold (Greenleaf), incorporates Chilean singer/guitarist Camila Meza’s wordless vocals into the flow, and Reverso, a dynamic chamber group (most recently documented on The Melodic Line and Live (OutNote]) that he co-leads with pianist Frank Woeste, a son of France, as is cellist Vincent Courtois, a frequent partner.

Earlier in the encounter, Keberle remarked, “I made a career for over a decade playing every style in New York and trying to do it authentically.” He was referencing his steady presence on albums and gigs by the orchestras of Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, and Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project; Emilio Solla y la Inestable de Brooklyn; Pedro Giraudo; and various other top-flight pan-American ensembles, as well as various luminaries in pop and classical worlds.

“We function in many different musical languages,” Keberle said, addressing the conceptual fluidity that distinguishes a large portion of the trombone tribe. “It takes someone with an extremely open mind, who’s attracted to learning all these different languages—because obviously that’s not easy to do. It takes someone with the deepest ability to listen critically and get at subtle details you won’t notice unless you’ve been playing trombone and listening to a particular style for many years: timbre subtleties in vibrato and in articulation, the way you move the air and stop the air, the way you use your slide. I love doing that, and I’ve found it rewarding to then allow those influences to enter my own music, however that might sound at the time. Once you become fluent in a language, you start speaking that language yourself. As you’re creating music, it’s always fun to see how those different languages emerge in different settings, depending on who you’re writing for, what audience you’re playing for, where you’re playing.”

Keberle applies those attributes to Sonhos da Esquina, which developed after he received his first sabbatical opportunity from Hunter College, where he’s directed the jazz program since 2004. He suggested that he travel to Brazil and Cuba to do fieldwork on the trombone’s role in the music of those countries. “In Brazil, trombonists are almost part of the rhythm section at times, playing counterlines, providing harmony,” Keberle says. “In American music, typically you play a melody, you take a solo if you’re lucky, and then sit around while the rest of the event takes place. I love being part of the whole musical experience from beginning to end.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. McCoy Tyner Big Band
“Samba dei Ber” (Journey, Birdology). Tyner, piano; Slide Hampton, trombone solo; Angel Rangelov, composer; Valtinho Anastacio, percussion; Earl Gardner, Virgil Jones, Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Steve Turre, Frank Lacy, trombone; John Clark, French horn; Tony Underwood, tuba; Doug Harris, alto saxophone and flute; Joe Ford, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, John Stubblefield, tenor saxophone; Ronnie Cuber, baritone saxophone; Avery Sharpe, bass; Aaron Scott, drums. Recorded in 1993.

BEFORE: That pretty much sums up everything I love about Brazil. I could listen to that rhythm section and be completely satisfied. This is where the English vocabulary falls short. It’s really hard to talk about groove, because we’re talking about visceral feelings: how it feels in our body, how it makes us physically respond. The band is just so swinging—to use a Brazilian and American term. It sounds like a band from Rio de Janeiro; that type of samba groove is more prevalent in Rio than in the north or São Paulo. It’s not Raul de Souza, whose playing I know pretty well. Someone slightly younger, coming out of Slide Hampton and J.J Johnson. It’s a piano-led band for sure, since the piano is so much louder in the mix. I’m trying to think which Brazilian pianist it could be.

It’s not a Brazilian band.

I’m stumped.

AFTER: [Loud laugh] The reason I mentioned Slide was because it sounds like Slide and it was his language. But I’d never heard Slide play in a very upbeat samba style, so I thought it was a Brazilian trombonist who had been checking out Slide Hampton. The context threw me because those guys were swinging! They definitely got inside that music more than the average American jazz musician. A lot of amazing American drummers have trouble playing authentically in this style. They tend to sit back on the beat just a bit, whereas in Brazil it’s the opposite—the drummers sit on top of the beat, which doesn’t feel very good when you’re playing swing.

2. Raul de Souza
“Só por Amor” (Bossa Eterna, Biscoito Fino). De Souza, trombone; João Donato, piano; Luiz Alves, bass; Robertinho Silva, drums; Baden Powell, Vinícius de Moraes, composers. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: This sounds Brazilian. It’s an interesting track. I love this song and I’ve played it, but I don’t remember the name. The tone of the instrument sounds like Raul de Souza. But if it is Raul de Souza, I think it might be a track later in his career. 

You’re on point.

The language is a bit different than the language he used in the ’60s, which I’m more familiar with, when he was playing valve trombone—like Art Blakey meets Brazilian samba, literally Freddie Hubbard on valve trombone. The language is postbop, the groove in which he plays eighth-note subdivisions is assertive and aggressive, like Freddie—and all over the horn, like Freddie. This is more mellow, less aggressive. He’s holding notes out, which allows the listener to live with the resonance of the sound. It’s also much lower in register than what he used to play. I could tell he was older because I could hear the subtle struggle to get up above high concert B-flat, which for most people is not an issue—technically speaking—when they’re at their physical peak. I’m not saying this in a negative way. It still sounds fantastic. The style of music called for that too.

3. Natalie Cressman & Ian Faquini
“Museu Nacional” (Setting Rays of Summer, self-released). Cressman, trombone; Faquini, acoustic guitar, composer. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: It sounds like Natalie Cressman, who I know has a project with duo guitar and trombone. Beautiful playing. It doesn’t get much better. I’ve heard some of this, but not the full record. She sings a lot on this project, and I was waiting for her to start. Her father is Jeff Cressman, also a phenomenal trombonist in the Bay Area who is deep in the Brazilian musical tradition. She’s definitely keeping the torch burning brightly. I could tell it was a more modern player because—and Natalie may or may not agree with this—the sound and vibrato sounded to me a lot like Marshall Gilkes. Maybe it’s in the subconscious; influences are not always direct or obvious to us. I loved the simplicity, the way she stuck very closely to the melody. It was essentially a chamber-music performance, with very little improvisation, other than a little personalization here or there. The chemistry is beautiful and they let the music speak for itself. That’s really mature. Unfortunately, we in the jazz world have lost track of that approach to music-making to a certain degree. It’s been a longstanding tradition to make a song your own and personalize it, which sometimes happens from expectation or pressure as opposed to happening naturally, because you have something to add. They utilized dynamic range and the full register of the horn, like what great chamber music can do—that push and pull with the tempo so it’s not super-rigid and mechanical, but there’s give and take following the shape of the lines and the phrases. Really high-quality music making.

I’ve noticed that Natalie Cressman is fluent in many different styles—and systematically so; she’s written about funk trombone and Brazilian trombone, for example. Do you have anything to say about both the presence of versatility and the application of logic among a lot of trombone players?

I have a lot to say because I made a career for over a decade playing every style in New York and trying to do it authentically. I’ll speak to that first. The trombone often resides at the butt of musical jokes, but we are some of the busiest instrumentalists in music capitals like São Paulo or New York or L.A. Trombone may not be out in front or leading bands very often, but we are backing up many different bands in many different genres, functioning in many different musical languages. There are so many subtle details. Natalie is absolutely interested in pursuing that type of musical fluency, and has also made a career doing it. That’s something I also love doing, and I’ve found it rewarding to then allow those influences to enter my own music, however that might sound at the time. Once you become fluent in a language, you can obviously then also start speaking that language yourself. As you’re creating music, it’s always fun to see how those different languages emerge in different settings, depending on who you’re writing for, what audience you’re playing for it, where you’re playing.

I think the logic also stems from the trombone’s role in section playing. In part, we spend a lot of time sitting in big bands. For most trombonists, that’s where we learn to play music and where we learn to be professionals—and often, with the traditional setup, sitting right in the middle of the big band and right next to the rhythm section. You come up learning by playing Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Thad Jones and Bill Holman. The list goes on and on and on. Maria Schneider. Darcy James Argue. In big bands you meet other trombonists, get your first gigs. You’re also playing this incredible repertoire, and all of those composers I mentioned—obviously, most great composers for large ensemble—have to think logically and be structured and organized. That’s just how large ensemble music usually operates. So I think we grow up, so to speak, as musicians playing music that has a logic to it, and then eventually, as you start writing, you have those influences in you, whether you realize it or not.

“In Brazil, trombonists are almost part of the rhythm section at times. In American music, typically you play a melody, you take a solo if you’re lucky, and then sit around while the rest of the event takes place.”

4. Trombone’s Samba
“Estamos Ai” (Estamos Ai, Tratore). Alevtina Polyakova, trombone, arrangement; Corey Wilcox, Jorginho Neto, trombone (solo order); Alexandre Ribeiro, clarinet; João Bueno, piano; Nino Nascimento, bass; Jônatas Sansão, drums; Marcio Forte, percussion; Mauricio Einhorn, Durval Ferreira, composers. Recorded in 2021.

BEFORE: When I heard the rhythm section, which was really swinging, I thought this is Brazilian, but then I heard the trombone solos. Fantastic playing by all three, extreme upper-register chops, especially the second and the third soloists. I’m pretty sure the second solo was Mike Dease and the third solo was Wycliffe Gordon. No? The second soloist articulated really methodically—an American articulation coming out of the Carl Fontana doodle tongue, although their tonguing was even cleaner than Fontana’s. A really consistent eighth-note subdivision approach, playing beautiful bebop lines all over the horn. For the third player, I thought of Wycliffe because it was such a soulful performance—and also just freak trombone chops. The third person in particular really touched me. I don’t know that tune. It sounds like a classic samba tune or late choro tune, I’m not sure. It sounded like a jazz musician’s arrangement, with the intro and the outro. Very smart arranging.

AFTER: I know Jorginho well. Man, does he sound good! That’s some freak trombone playing that I thought only Wycliffe Gordon could do. Corey would be influenced by Michael Dease’s world and very much coming out of Wycliffe before that.

5. Joe Pass and J.J. Johnson
“Wave” (We’ll Be Together Again, Pablo). Johnson, trombone; Pass, acoustic guitar; Antônio Carlos Jobim, composer. Recorded in 1983.

BEFORE: I love this song and I played it in Brazil quite a bit. I’m not 100% sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s Curtis Fuller … and Wes Montgomery? If it’s not Curtis, then it’s J.J. I don’t know this, and I’m a bit of a J.J. nut. It’s not in my collection. Everything about J.J.’s sound is unique—the way he expresses himself with the slide, the way he scoops and falls. You’ll have to place it in time for me. 

1983.

Ah, it’s later J.J. I’m not sure how active he was around this time, when he was doing a lot of Hollywood orchestrations. Some intonation issues made me second-guess it. The J.J. we all know from the 1960s is perfect, literally like Mozart on trombone. That’s why I said Curtis, who wasn’t quite as much of a perfectionist as J.J. in those regards. Knowing the era, I wonder if the guitarist was Jim Hall.

AFTER: One of my favorite records in the trombone idiom is Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer, Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival 1979. I love trombone-guitar duet, because they’re both tenor instruments that go just low enough into the bass register that they can play a bassline. They can hold down the roots of harmony. But they’re also melody instruments. They’re versatile, in other words. In the hands of great composing improvisers, like Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer—or in this case, Joe Pass and J.J.—the sky’s the limit in terms of the music that can be made.

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.