In the early part of the 20th century, plenty of classical composers were quick to label and dismiss jazz as lowbrow entertainment. France’s Maurice Ravel, however, wasn’t one of them. He completely opened his mind and ears to the music during a visit to the U.S. in 1928, checking out the scene at the Savoy Ballroom and visiting the Cotton Club to hear Duke Ellington’s band. Ravel was quick to praise what he encountered, and jazz would ultimately influence a number of his later works. Now, in a reversal demonstrating how the powers of inspiration circle back around, trombonist Ryan Keberle and pianist Frank Woeste tap into the marrow of his music.
Keberle and Woeste use Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin as their seed material, working with its DNA and harnessing their own creative sensibilities to develop something fresh that still pays its debts and references structural precepts associated with the composition’s Baroque-influenced suite form. “Ostinato (Prelude)” opens the album and sets the scene by blending pulsating motifs, long painterly lines, open fields and pointillist statements into a fascinating whole. “All Ears (Fugue)” is one of several weighty works highlighting the tonal kinship between Vincent Courtois’ cello and Keberle’s trombone; “Alangui (Forlane)” nods to slow courtly dancing; “Mother/Nature (Rigaudon)” projects a sense of longing through its refined flow and briefly scattered sentiments; and “Sortilège (Menuet)” runs on drummer Jeff Ballard’s grooves and Courtois’ extroverted expressions.
“Ancient Theory (Toccata),” while not bringing finality to the album, constitutes the last movement of the suite. Through its 7/4 sawing passages and triumphantly broad 6/4 sections, it also paints the fullest and most integrated picture of this captivating chamber quartet. By successfully wedding classical influence and jazz intent, Keberle and Woeste succeed where so many others have failed. A follow-up from this foursome is certainly in order.