Trombonist, A Broad: with Ryan Keberle

In Trombonist, A Broad expat Aussie jazz sensation Shannon Barnett meets with stars of the jazz trombone world – this month she chats with trombonist, composer and educator Ryan Keberle

If you have ever listened to the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Darcy James Argueʼs Secret Society, Sufjan Stevens, watched Saturday Night Live or taken in a Broadway show, thereʼs a good chance youʼve heard Ryan Keberle. The outrageously talented musician and composer is an integral part of the New York jazz scene, but also has a strong international profile and travel schedule to match.

 Ryan Keberle

Shannon: You started out playing violin and piano, but how did you find yourself playing trombone?

Ryan: My father is a trumpet player and was a student of Bill Adams. Heʼs a professor of music in the town where I grew up, and he leads the college jazz band, and used to lead the professional band in our town. As you know, aside from cities like New York, thereʼs often a shortage of good trombone players around, so my Dad basically groomed me for his own purposes and I ended up playing in the college band when I was in junior high and the professional band when I was in high school.

Shannon: You’ve played in so many different settings, including small jazz groups, big bands, session work, Broadway musicals and television, what do you practise in order to become such a versatile musician?

Ryan: If you’re learning the big band language, you’re already set to play a lot of different styles. The traditional big band language is very much about having a technical proficiency on your instrument. Intonation, sound, various articulations, blending, listening. Looking back, I think the big thing is being able to listen really critically and in a detailed way. Being able to hear what it is about that style that makes it different from other styles, and being able to match that. One of the things I tell my students to practise is to try to hear the various instruments on any given record. And itʼs incredible how difficult that is; holding your attention for three minutes, listening to something that you donʼt normally listen to. Thatʼs kind of overlooked in music education. Also, itʼs amazing to me that many students canʼt notate or quantify what they just played. After getting them to forget all that left brain activity and just play a melody, itʼs actually difficult to get them to then be able to quantify that, especially rhythmically. As anyone who has transcribed jazz solos knows, itʼs very rare that 99% of what they played isnʼt quantifiable. Being able to know what youʼre playing in the moment (which starts with being able to write it down), thatʼs everything to me.

Shannon: Your group Catharsis doesnʼt have a chordal instrument, yet you say you are ʻpianocentricʼ when it comes to composing. How do you transfer pianistic concepts to your compositions? 

Ryan: When youʼre playing at the piano, everything youʼre writing is vertical and chordal, but nothing you ever play as a horn player or a vocalist is going to be chordal, itʼs always melodic. So taking those melodies and creating the harmony that you want; thatʼs the challenge. I study a lot of string quartet and chamber music scores, by composers like Ravel, Beethoven and Bartok, to figure out how to go about that. In the jazz world, the master of this is Gil Evans. Thereʼs nuance, dynamics and interesting rhythmic language in addition to well-structured melodies.

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