Work for highly skilled trombonists isn’t hard to come by, especially amid the recording opportunities and Broadway pit bands in a city as culturally vibrant as New York. But it’s easy to remain anonymous, which is why the growing visibility of trombonist-composer Ryan Keberle is impressive. Keberle was in the first class of Juilliard’s jazz program, a distinction he credits with giving him the push that has enabled him to step into the spotlight. “In terms of teachers and professional artists I met,” Keberle says by phone from his Brooklyn home base, “Juilliard was unbelievably important.” When we spoke, Catharsis, his working quintet, had just released its fifth record, Find the Common, Shine the Light, but as far back as 2014 it had become obvious that the trombonist was headed for acclaim. At that point NPR invited the group down to its Washington, D.C., offices to perform a Tiny Desk Concert, the popular video series often reserved for indie-rockers, hip-hoppers, folkies, and R&B stars. The band—whose frontline is filled out by singer-guitarist Camila Meza and trumpeter Michael Rodriguez—opened the NPR concert with a song by the indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, with whom Keberle had recently toured.
The trombonist hasn’t left jazz education behind, however. He has been a full professor in the music program at Hunter College since 2010. One could easily say that a certain strain of academia is in Keberle’s blood. “I consider myself a performer first,” he explains, “but music education is a huge part of who I am. My dad is a trumpeter and runs a jazz program at [Whitworth University] in Spokane, Washington. My mom is a piano teacher. Even my grandparents were music educators, and even heavier, my parents grew up in the same town in Wisconsin, and it was my mother’s father that got my dad started on trumpet.”
The trombonist’s ambition can probably be traced to his belief that even a master’s program is only a beginning. “There’s so much more to learn,” he says. “And when I look at people who are really successful beyond their college days, it’s the musicians who keep learning and striving to make themselves better that have the edge. I mean, for starters, jazz is a difficult music to teach because the improvisational component that makes jazz a living, creative language has to become one with the pedagogy. I remember this one master class where Wynton Marsalis [(’81, trumpet) and the director of Juilliard Jazz since 2014] stopped by to talk about Ornette Coleman’s music, which he actually told us at the outset wasn’t his favorite music, being more avant-garde. So we’re all thinking, ‘Well, that’s kind of an odd way to introduce something,’ right? But then he began singing solos by [Coleman trumpeter] Don Cherry note for note. It was clear that he knew them from the inside. I just think school gives you the skills you need to continue to acquire knowledge, no matter where you might find it.”
Though he gigs with a number of big bands and jazz ensembles (Grammy-winning arranger Maria Schneider’s orchestra; the Darcy James Argue Secret Society), Keberle’s vision has been moving well beyond the realm of acoustic music. He traded his trombone for a melodica at one point in the NPR concert, and recent videos of Catharsis’s latest material feature Keberle on a Fender Rhodes keyboard. “When I was touring with Sufjan Stevens, he got more into electronics,” he explains. “A couple of months ago I discovered a new analog synthesizer by Korg called the Minilogue, and I swear, I went waayyy down a black hole; it took over my life for about a month. So now I’m playing it in Catharsis and I have a solo project in which I’m using it live. Some things are pre-recorded and looped, while others run effects through the trombone. It’s a little more than just the brass experience.”
K. Leander Williams is a staffer at The New Yorker and has written about music and the arts for a variety of publications, among them Time Out New York, The New York Times, The Nation, and The Village Voice.