Reflections on a Dream Year

As some of you may know, I was fortunate enough to do an enormous amount of traveling this past year, partly as a result of a sabbatical from my teaching position at Hunter College, where I’ve been director of jazz studies for the last 15 years. I love teaching but this sabbatical gave me the greatest freedom to date to really explore who I am and what my priorities are.

Since May 2017 I’ve spent almost 5 months cumulatively on the road traveling all over the United States, Europe, Brazil, Cuba, and Japan. Most of my time was spent performing but I also found time to listen to and learn from amazing music being made around the world. As we turn the corner and head down the home stretch of summer break, I’ve found myself reflecting on what has been a dream year and I wanted to share a few of my experiences and lessons learned.

Catharsis, featuring Sarah Elizabeth Charles, Scott Robinson, Jorge Roeder, Eric Doob, and myself, on tour through California in April 2018.

The Culture Gap in Small Town America

Catharsis performed in an astonishingly wide array of rural areas throughout the United States this past year, often times college and university towns situated against bucolic landscapes. I like to joke with my vocalist, Camila Meza (who hails from Chile), and Jorge Roeder (who hails from Peru), that they have seen more of America touring with Catharsis than most Americans have!

Our rural American audiences seemed hungry for art and live music and were, in some cases, some of the most enthusiastic listeners we’ve played for – even though for some it was their first exposure to live jazz. We made so many new friends and fans, sold more CDs than we ever do when playing in the “big cities,” and shared some truly magical musical moments between the band and the audience.

Towns like Evansville, Indiana; Kirksville, MO; Chico, CA and Stevens Point, WI all showed us a sense of deep appreciation for live music. However, these communities, like most of the United States, also expressed struggles with continued cuts to federal and state support for arts and education budgets and a lack of institutional funding for culture.

Reverso, featuring Frank Woeste, Vincent Courtois, Greg Hutchinson and myself, after our debut performance at the Antony Jazz Festival (Paris) in November 2017

My experience with European audiences, on the other hand, was completely different. We played for seasoned listeners who have access to the arts as if they flow from the tap. They possessed a deep appreciation for live music and, more generally, for creative thought and Art (with a capital A). My trans-oceanic group, Reverso, which I co-lead with French pianist Frank Woeste, released our latest album Suite Ravel this past year. In November 2017, Reverso premiered this music in Europe as we celebrated our CD release and then performed again in France this past Spring.

From my perspective, one of the big differences between Western Europe and rural America is that the United States suffers from a lack of access to music education (or the wrong kind of music education and inaccurate Hollywood portrayals of art and education…see Whiplash and La La Land), a lack of education and appreciate of the Arts in general, and a lack of access to information, goods and services not controlled by huge corporations.

One of the things that stood out to me while traveling through the American Midwest was the fact that the more rural a location or the smaller the town, the more prevalent the big box and chain stores appeared to be. And, of course, with huge corporations having taken over not only small town America but most cities as well, not surprisingly, there was a noticeable lack of family-owned mom-and-pop businesses. On the other hand, throughout France, both in the big cities and in the countryside, I saw small businesses flourishing in all facets of life. Ironically, the “small town” aesthetic seems to be more alive in the suburbs of Paris than in Kirksville, Missouri!

I love this country. I hate to see what has happened to it and continues to happen at an even faster rate. We are not that different as people and we have lessons to learn from each other. That empathy is what we try to foster in all my groups, but especially with Catharsis.

Cuba & Brazil (and Japan)

(watch a short video of some incredible Cuban spiritual folkloric music)

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to bring my wife, Erica, on a couple of tours this past year which doesn’t happen often enough. Our first trip took us to Japan where we spent 10 days traveling the countryside prior to the debut of the Catharsis Trio in that country (composed of myself, Camila and Jorge). Japan is a favorite for both of us and is one of our favorite places on the planet to explore and eat!  We met unbelievably hospitable and generous people, were welcomed into and invited to partake in the rich history and culture of the country and, of course, we ate unbelievable food every meal! The Japanese are also some of the greatest listeners in the world which, I believe, stems from their deep respect for aesthetic beauty and genuine quality.

Women’s music and cultural center in Matanzas, Cuba

Erica and I also travelled to Cuba where we heard life-changing Afro-Cuban and folkloric music all day, every day, for 10 days straight led by the inimitable songwriter, musicologist and “post-Mamboist” Ned Sublette. I also travelled to Brazil TWICE this year, where I finally got to play Brazilian music WITH Brazilian musicians IN Brazil. Plus, I got to perform and record some of my own Brazilian-inspired music in Brazil with Brazilian musicians (shout out to the Soundscapes Big Band, Junior Galante, Felipe Silveira, Thiago Alves, and Paulinho Vicente in Sao Paolo and Eduardo Neves in Rio!)

Cuba and Brazil couldn’t possibly be more different. Communism vs. Capitalism, government regulations vs. free enterprise, social welfare vs. every man for himself. And, while both countries have their issues, there was so much to learn, not just on a musical level. Cuba, for all its negative press, (or just utter LACK of press), that we see in America, has a lot going for it.  The country offers free healthcare and universal higher education to all of its citizens. There is virtually no gun violence. Quality time and care for family is still celebrated. However, living in a country where the government tells you what to do, how to do it, controls all media outlets and news sources, and makes owning property almost impossible certainly takes its toll.

Meanwhile, Brazil is the (malnourished and scared) poster child for rampant out-of-control Capitalism. The country, I’m told, is owned and governed by a very small number of uber-wealthy families, like our 1%. The corporate greed and corruption is taking its toll on a country that has seen its fair share of social turmoil over the past century and demoralizing a population that has persevered through poverty and military dictatorships. If you’ve ever wondered what the United States might look like after another 20 years of the kind of deregulation that our current administration is working hard to institute, just travel to Brazil. It’s not pretty.

Cuba and Brazil, however, share at least three very important things in common: a deep and direct link to the same parts of Western and Central Africa and its music and culture; a long history of institutionalized slavery and racism; and an ongoing struggle with extreme poverty. It could be that this is why both countries have such incredible music and, from my perspective, why the level of appreciation for music and its importance in everyday life is so mind-blowingly deeply-ingrained in the populace.

Wrapping Up

I have exactly one more month left of this dream year and I plan to spend all of it enjoying a bit of free time doing what I love most – swimming, fishing, composing, practicing, playing piano, and grilling and relaxing at Kamp Keberle in the Catskills.  2018-2019 looks like another very busy year so rest assured you’ll be hearing from me again in the not-too-distant future with many exciting announcements!

Thanks so much for your support and lending an ear.

Ryan