Among the many reasons American trombonist Ryan Keberle and French pianist Frank Woeste started their co-led ensemble, Reverso, was that both saw their music as a two-way street. “We were interested not only in blending classical and jazz, but also in the historical significance of how jazz and classical have influenced each other over the last 120 years,” says Keberle. “And, still to this day, many musicians —Frank and I included — straddle both worlds.”
“I love the chamber music vibe that we have with this band,” adds Woeste. “Of course, this is jazz, because it’s very it’s improvised, but at the same time you can hear the classical background in it.”
That was certainly true of Suite Ravel, the group’s debut which took inspiration from the music of Maurice Ravel — particularly the piano suite “Le Tombeau de Couperin” — to create an album of classically informed jazz. With The Melodic Line, Reverso digs even deeper into the possibilities of classical/jazz cross-pollination by looking into the music of Les Six, a group of early 20th Century French composers whose members included Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honneger, and Germaine Tailleferre.
Why Les Six? Part of the answer lies in the Reverso origin story, in which Keberle and Woeste, who met during a Dave Douglas recording session in 2015, received a grant from the French American Jazz Exchange. “One of the stipulations of the grant was that the theme of the project needed to somehow incorporate French and/or American culture,” explains Keberle. “Both Frank and I were deeply involved in classical piano growing up and Ravel just happened to be our mutual favorite composer.
When it came time to make a second album, the two tried to find a focus that would be similar, but different. “We knew we wanted to stay in that world,” says Keberle. “We threw a bunch of composers and musical inspirations around, and finally settled on Les Six. We liked the fact that, musically, many of their compositions contain this “jazzy” sonority and aesthetic.”
Milhaud, in particular, has considerable cachet in the jazz world, in part because his 1923 ballet “La création du monde” included a reasonable approximation of Chicago-style jazz, but also because one of his later students was pianist Dave Brubeck.
Woeste was particularly interested in a suite of piano pieces Milhaud wrote while attached to the French Legion in Brazil between 1917-19. Called “Saudades,” the music drew heavily on folkloric Brazilian elements for its melodies and rhythms. “It was great fun to have that harmonic language from French music and also some Brazilian influences,” says Woeste.
Keberle, on the other hand, was intrigued by the music of Tailleferre, the sole female member of Les Six. “I was blown away by her music. She was someone I’d never even heard of,” he says. “Talking to my friends in the classical world, a lot of them hadn’t heard of her either. She was the forgotten member.” But as Keberle explored her work, particularly “Impromptu” and “Pastorales” for solo piano, “Sonatine for Violin and Piano,” “Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello,” and the film score for Bretagne, he was amazed by how much she had accomplished over her seventy-year career. “There’s a very diverse collection of musical styles and genres that she wrote in, and many different instrumentations, everything from operas to piano trios.”
Being composers as well as improvisors, Keberle and Woeste used their insights gained through playing and studying these pieces to create works of their own. “Frank and I have a very similar approach to composition,” Keberle says. After immersing himself in the music of Les Six, playing it on both piano and trombone, he finds that those influences will naturally work their way into his artistic expression. “I’m trying to get into as pure and uninhibited of a creative musical space as possible,” he says. “I’m essentially improvising when I compose.”
Similarly, when Woeste is writing for Reverso, he tries to “extract the DNA of a piece — bits of melody, bits of harmonic structure — and create something new from that. I want there to be a direct connection, not just to play the piece and put a rhythm under it.
It helps that Reverso doesn’t employ a standard jazz rhythm section. Although Suite Ravel used drummer Jeff Ballard alongside cellist Vincent Courtois, The Melodic Line uses only Courtois. “He is by far the most successful and critically acclaimed improvising cellist in Paris, perhaps in France, maybe even in all of Europe,” says Keberle. “And the resonance between trombone and cello is so beautiful. One of my favorite things to do is simply write unison lines with the two instruments. It’s just such a beautiful sound, so warm.”
“Not having a rhythm section means you can stretch the time a little bit,” adds Woeste. “You can add a lot of dynamics — crescendo, decrescendo. You can almost be as vibrant as a piano trio — piano with the violin and cello, except it’s with trombone.”