It was a pleasure working with the great Arturo O’Farrill on the liner notes for Azul Infinito. You can read both of our thoughts on the record below!
Soon after moving to New York City in 1999 at 19 to attend the Manhattan School of Music, some of my first strong musical friendships were – somewhat ironically for a sheltered kid from the Pacific Northwest suburbs – formed within the burgeoning South American jazz community in New York. These early connections included Pedro Giraudo and Sebastian Cruz (whom I’ll discuss below), Fernando Otero, Hector del Curto, Pablo Mayor and Martin Vejerano. The musical traditions, rhythms and sounds of the Southern Hemisphere were completely foreign, yet somehow familiar. Fifteen years later, my subconscious connection to these sounds, have turned to a conscious awareness of the universal language of music, and more specifically the emotional power that great music holds on its listeners.
In American music this emotional power has historically stemmed from the defining role played by the blues over the past 125+ years, while similar cathartic Afro-centric musical traits can be found throughout Latin American music. Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinean writer, called this indescribable catharsis through art an “evento estético” or “aesthetic event.” My aesthetic event, and the inspiration for this record, is the sum total of these years of experience and exposure to South American cultures, customs, friendships and music, which has helped shape me into the musician I am today. I hope this record conveys the influence that South American music has played in my life, and allows listeners to experience their own aesthetic event.
Each original song on this record is either dedicated to, or directly influenced by, a specific South American composer with whom I’ve had the pleasure to play.
The opening track, “I Thought I Knew,” pays homage to the rhythmic tornado of the Argentinian chacarera groove. I grew familiar with this rhythm many years ago through bassist and composer, Pedro Giraudo, as we spent hours in practice rooms jamming and practicing standards in unusual meters like 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, and 13/8. The lyrics were written for Catharsis by a powerful New York-based writer and poet, Manca Miro, whose words unfold like a sixth band member, both on this tune and “She Sleeps Alone.”
My decision to include lyrics on Azul Infinito was driven in large part by my love for the songwriting of Sebastian Cruz – a brilliant composer, songwriter and guitarist. The undeniably compelling melody of “Canción Mandala” comes from the repertoire of his Colombian folk/jazz band I played with from 2006-2007. Although I had already been performing complex jazz music for years, playing Colombian folkloric music was an ear-opening experience for me as I grappled to feel the downbeat found in simple yet sophisticated Colombian grooves.
“Mr. Azul” pays tribute to the Afro-centric traditions found throughout most South American folk music, and the elements of danceable energy and cathartic properties found universally in music with African roots. In 2014 I was fortunate to travel throughout Colombia with the percussion virtuoso and composer, Samuel Torres, also a member of the New York scene. One particular style that stuck with me was the Afro-Colombian fertility dance known as the bullerengue, with its infectiously propulsive groove that inspired this composition.
Having been such a longtime friend and member of his band, I couldn’t record a South American inspired album without arranging at least one of Giraudo’s ballads. Pedro’s writing is some of the most dramatically captivating music I’ve had the pleasure to play, and his ballads written in the northern Argentine folkloric tradition known as the zamba convey this drama most poignantly for me. Pedro originally wrote “La Ley Primera” as an alto saxophone feature for his jazz orchestra. For my arrangement I commissioned Argentinean singer, songwriter, and lyricist, Roxana Amed, to add lyrics to the tune. The song, which translates to “first law,” references one of Argentina’s most widely known and beloved epic tales about the gaucho – the Argentine cowboy.
Roxana describes the song and her lyrics as follows: “We Argentinians seem always to be wandering in our own land as exiles, heartbroken, longing for happiness. There is a book that tells the story of a lone pilgrim in his own deserted world, condemned by his brothers and abandoned by his own principles. This man sings, and his words, which Argentine children learn early on, reach our hearts every time. ‘The first law’ states ‘Let the brothers be united.’ This refrain is now more than ever a rallying cry for every Argentinean in the world.”
“Quintessence” was inspired by the Brazilian musical icon and songwriter Ivan Lins. His harmonically sophisticated, though highly accessible songwriting is a great source of inspiration to me. I had an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform with Lins in 2006 when he performed with the Maria Schneider Orchestra at a Rio de Janeiro jazz festival and still think about his honest voice and poignant delivery.
“Eternity of An Instant,” my latest composition for Catharsis, is a snapshot of many different musical elements I’ve now inherited from South American music. The title of this song comes from an essay by Borges, which reads: “Man lives in time, in successiveness, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.” Fittingly, through-composed structure of the composition, along with the folkloric undertones, are inspired by the Grammy-nominated Argentine composer, Emilio Solla, whose tango-inspired band I’ve been playing in for a number of years.
All told, this is by no means a Latin record or a Latin jazz record by traditional standards. Although I draw inspiration from composers and songwriters from the Southern Hemisphere, the music contained herein represents a broad scope of what South American music can be. From the Brazilian pop of Ivan Lins to the folkloric songwriting of Sebastian Cruz to the jazz-meets-Argentine stylings of Pedro Giraudo to the symphonic virtuosity of Samuel Torres; these experiences have broadened my understanding of what South American music means and I hope that it will broaden your understanding as well.
November 2015, New York, NY
In my imagination Ryan Keberle grew up surrounded by fog, coffee and grunge music. I am not sure this is so, but for New Yorkers (who are amongst the most provincial humans possible) everything west of Ohio and north of San Francisco is so.
A far cry, socially, emotionally, and aesthetically from the Alto Plano in Bolivia, El Yunque in Puerto Rico, or the Andean highlands of Colombia. Empanadas, pupusas, ceviche and chicha morada are a far cry from corn dogs, apple pie and hamburgers.
And yet, human beings share the need for catharsis, for cleansing and release. Often we find it in places far from whence our journey begins. For Ryan, the journey finds its catharsis in the worlds of porro, festejo, milonga and maracatu (South American rhythms).
Music is a journey, a fluid line, not a fixed point in space. It thrives on catharsis. It defines itself not by what it is or isn’t but by what it can become. Ryan is in tune with this concept. He surrounds himself with musicians whose frame of reference is those southlands, guiding lights from throughout the Americas, Michael Rodriguez (who plays with Gonzalo Rubulcaba, Charlie Haden and Yosvany Terry), Camila Meza (originally from Chile, but who has burst onto the scene in the last five years as an important original voice), Eric Doob (who plays with Paquito D’Rivera and Miguel Zenón) and Jorge Roeder (originally from Peru, known for his associations with Sofia Rei, Julian Lage and Shai Maestro). Multi-lingual artists who don’t define themselves as this or that but like Ryan, see themselves as passengers on a blessed journey that is more important than the destination. For that is their catharsis as well.
For those who care to see definitions, categories and boxes, this is not your journey. For those, like Ryan, who see their fullest realization when they embrace others instead of themselves, this is their (and our) aesthetic event, our blessed catharsis.
Highlights include the opening track, “I Thought I Knew,” which feature interwoven layers of differing time patterns that resolve into a beautiful bass-led intro to the piece itself, while Camila sings of travels in our minds and in our lives. “Canción Mandala,” by Sebastian Cruz, has a serpentine melody that begs the question “where am I?/find me,” as if to say that the catharsis is not only about our journey in finding ourselves and one another. Therein lies the greatest treasure, loving and being loved.
If one reads or listens to the lyrics by Manca Miro on “She Sleeps Alone” one might think it is a tragically sad statement but rather is a beautiful composition about solitude and the strength one gains from independence and love. This composition truly partners with the words, as do the improvisations. Ryan’s original composition, “Eternity of An Instant,” is dedicated to Emilio Solla with whom Ryan works with in a group called “La Inestable de Brooklyn,” reflecting his boundless imagination. I saw this group perform and besides Ryan’s outstanding contributions, Emilio’s compositions are a source of inspiration to me. Beyond classification, this piece is part chamber music, part poem, part sound painting. The improvisations reflect the same cathartic aesthetic. As a side note, throughout the recording I find Eric Doob’s drumming a superb example of supportive understated accompaniment without grandstanding.
Ivan Lins has long been one of the hippest musicians and humans on the planet. His music is as alive and filled with joy as any I’ve ever heard. The closing track features Ivan’s tune, “Madalena,” and is a fitting way to end this recording. It is a light, airy jaunt into the pure joy of making music that defies gravity both physical and self-derived.
Each composition is a personal invitation from Keberle to experience his own catharsis through sound. Each one a cleansing reflection on an interaction with a South American composer that has left him (and consequently us) somehow changed for the better. It is also an invitation to interact with five musicians who soar through worlds rather than inhabit them. They teach us how one should see not only our art, but our world, as a place where one defines himself not by what he is or isn’t, but what he might become. Thank you Ryan and company for this reminder. This is a cleansing stance, a true evento estético.
November 2015, New York, NY