Jazz Impressionism: Pictures at an Exhibition

By Maya Mesola

Reverso w/Ryan KeberleFeb. 8, 2018|Jazz Gallery

1160 Broadway, 5th floor
New York, NY 10001
Ph: (646) 494-3625

Reverso: Suite Ravel (2018)


Ryan Keberle, trombonist and composer, took the stage at Jazz Gallery Wednesday night, as part of his CD release tour for his new album, available on bandcamp.

Ravel Suite is the café in Renoir’s (1881) Le déjeuner des canotiers that shelters you from the pouring rains of Claude Monet’s (1873) Boulevard de Capucines.

Reverso: Ravel Suite (2018) is a six movement jazz composition that pays homage to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) composed by New York’s own Ryan Keberle in collaboration w/ Frank Woeste. It is written for a chamber quartet piano, trombone, cello and drums, but takes the form of the French Baroque Suite for piano that Ravel revived 100 years ago. The Keberle and Woeste collaboration is a result of a French-American Jazz Exchange Grant (FACE). I attended the Reverso CD release party at Jazz Gallery in NYC, Wednesday, Feb 8th, 2018 and these are my impressions and thoughts of the performance, and newly released CD (featuring French cellist Vincent Courtois, and French-based American drummer, Jeff Ballard).


Photo Credit: Maya Mesola. Trombonist and composer, Ryan Keberle, Adam Cruz on drums.

Without even knowing in advance the artistic style that labeled and often haunted Maurice Ravel, I left the concert feeling as though Ravel Suite is impressionistic; a scene set within a scene. Ravel Suite is the café in Renoir’s (1881) Le déjeuner des canotiers that shelters you from the pouring rains of Claude Monet’s (1873) Boulevard de Capucines.

My main question here as always when jazz composers create a narrative that blends classical inspirations with their art is WHY? Why does jazz need classical music to make it seem great? Jazz IS elevated, sophisticated and smart. My second question is WHY Ravel? In my opinion, Ravel is monotonous (without distinctive climax), repetitive, and light-not something you might consider for a longer six movement jazz-anything.

When I listen to Ravel, I think of him more as a painter than a composer. He is a symbolic impressionist who creates atmosphere by painting a landscape, portrait or simple scene through which your mind can meander as you listen. I personally imagine through most of Ravel’s music a naïve virgin waiting at the window wondering if her gentleman caller is going to visit today or not – because it’s raining outside. Enter stage left intergalactic time traveling karate kid cowboy Ryan Keberle sliding up to your doorstep with a classical-inspired jazz trombone-because the dude you were waiting for did not show up as intended.

The prelude- “Ostinato” was, as I wrote in my notebook, “absolutely breathtaking.” Using digital instant playback and reverb, the prelude’s intro gave the breadth and feel of a full orchestra-tuning up. This effect was far more apparent during the live performance than the studio recording. If Keberle is a “jazz impressionist,” his trombone was evoking sweet aromatic bourbon, served neat, with a light oaky finish, which gave us depth, clarity and full body with his timbre and tone. I jotted down in my notebook, “His trombone is liquefying.”

The Fugue-“All Ears” is particularly astounding and gives us a Ravelian snare drum march more akin to Ravel’s Boléro, with a Basque-inspired melody on trombone, and cello with an air of the “blues”; a call of despair reminiscent of a Portuguese Fado. The intonation for both the live performance and on the cd is an issue for me, but I believe it is intentional; a mind warping “fuck you” to people who have perfect pitch and cringe during dissonance that is also perpetually, a quartertone sharp.

“Alangui,” which is the Forlane (an Italian folk dance)- starts with a classical motif on cello, leading to chromatic meandering trombone lines that together impart the spirit of a sad street clown handing out red balloons to children who don’t want them on a bridge over the River Seine.

Also of note is “Mother Nature”, the Rigadoun (a French baroque dance with a double meter), which left me questioning if Mother Nature was sad, angry, and disappointed in us all. “Mother Nature” is a movement in its own right, a social protest, a march, which shifted in and out of double time as deftly propelled by Erik Friedlander on cello, and Adam Cruz on drums during the live performance.

Track 8. “Impromptu” is a tapestry sewn with abstract cello and percussion instrumentations that provide us with sounds usually reserved for a meditation room: a rainstick, gong, Tibetan singing bowl, and a dungchen that calls us to prayer. This new age quasi-religious calling is only to be followed by Track 9 “Sortilège,” which to me portrays a frantic helter-skelter soundscape of a NYC midtown commute, with bus horns, subway tracks, and dodgy pedestrians, although the meaning in French is “spell, charm, incantation, or seduction”. What is it about this aspect of New York City, the hustle and bustle that also seduces us to marry her?

I was less impressed with the track “Dialogue,” which seemed overly simplistic and hanging out like a hot air balloon without a proper destination point. But again, who knows-isn’t that how we all feel about most of our conversations, or when we talk about politics today with the “opposings”? Like, where is this conversation even going? What’s the point?

Frank Woeste on piano verges more on commercial music/ soundtrack than the gritty hot grooves usually found in a New York City jazz club, but that is merely a matter of my own individual taste and style. Although I wished the suite had left room for both improvisation, and the breath/pause/moments of reflection that Ravel and jazz masters often gift to us, I would not be surprised if any part or whole of this collaboration gets snatched up for artistic-minded film soundtracks, if it hasn’t been contracted already.

Suite Ravel provides the modal (a)chromatic dissonance, and Ravel’s Bolero snare drum in a cerebral album that is well worth listening to at home, the backdrop for a small party, coffee shop, and more importantly thinking about, and discussing with your intellectual friends over a fine glass of Chardonnay, or a smooth American Bourbon.