When David Bowie, rock music’s original and most enduring chameleon, records a jazz song, the world notices.
It’s not like he hasn’t gone there before. In 1984, he recorded the hit single “This Is Not America” with the Pat Metheny Group. His 1993 album “Black Tie/White Noise” featured jazz trumpet great Lester Bowie. In songs such as “Don’t Look Down” from 1984’s “Tonight,” and “Bring Me the Disco King” from 2003’s “Reality,” he played liberally with the jazz vocabulary.
But his new single, “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime),” doesn’t just quote jazz, or dabble. Bowie dives in head first, and a Spokane-born trombone player was on hand to watch the splash.
Ryan Keberle, a 1998 Mead High School graduate, is a featured soloist on the single, which is the only new song recorded for Bowie’s forthcoming greatest hits collection, “Nothing Has Changed” (a clear riff on the previous hits packages, “Changesonebowie” and “Changestwobowie”). This 50-year career retrospective comes out Nov. 18, and in its deluxe 59-track edition it’s presented in reverse chronological order – meaning “Sue” is the first track and “Liza Jane,” recorded in 1964 by Davie Jones & the King Bees, is last.
“Sue,” recorded this past summer in New York, is a seven-and-a-half minute “horns-heavy epic” that is “Bowie’s most jazz-influenced track since the ‘Aladdin Sane’ era” (in the words of Rolling Stone). It was produced by his longtime collaborator Tony Visconti and features the New York-based Maria Schneider Orchestra.
Which is where Keberle enters the picture.
Keberle has been playing trombone with the Grammy-winning Maria Schneider Orchestra for nearly 10 years. And apparently, Bowie’s been a longtime fan.
“He has been secretly coming to gigs of ours in New York over the years, you know, in disguise. She (Maria Schneider) had no idea,” Keberle said in a recent phone interview from New York, where he’s lived since 1999.
Bowie’s people approached Schneider about collaborating on a song, and after the two of them met, the project moved forward.
“He came to our gig last spring, we did a week at Birdland, and of course everyone in the band is peeking over their shoulders. ‘What table is he at? Where’s Bowie sitting?’ ” Keberle said. “He picked two of us out. He picked (tenor sax player) Donny McCaslin, who is definitely one of the more featured soloists in the band, generally speaking, and he picked me.”
Keberle’s passion may be for jazz, but he’s no stranger to the rock world. He’s toured with indie rocker Sufjan Stevens, played with the Saturday Night Live Band, and backed up performers such as Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. The Bowie project, however, was a definite highlight.
“I’ve done a lot of these kinds of things over the years, not too many at the Bowie level, but a lot of famous people,” Keberle said, “but this was definitely the coolest. In many ways it was the most personal contact that I had.”
Those other gigs, maybe he’d say hello to someone as they passed in the hall at “SNL,” he said, or might chat for few minutes backstage. The work on the Bowie single was pretty collaborative.
“They really wanted to come at this compositional process collaboratively,” Keberle said. The musicians, including Keberle, McCaslin and the rhythm section from the Schneider orchestra, participated in two lengthy, all-afternoon rehearsals in a nondescript, tiny rehearsal space in Manhattan. “So it was the six of us … and David Bowie,” he said.
Then there was a daylong recording session with Bowie and Visconti, the producer.
“It was a very organic process which is why it worked out so well,” he said. “It’s definitely jazz, but to me it still sounds like a David Bowie song.”
All this is part of what’s turning into a productive fall for Keberle, who also teaches music at Hunter College when he’s not performing. His own band, Ryan Keberle and Catharsis, put out its second album in September. Called “Into the Zone,” it marks a couple firsts for Keberle. It’s his first record to be released on a label other than his own: Greenleaf Music, run by the great jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas. (The first Catharsis album, 2013’s “Music is Emotion,” and two records made with his double quartet were released on Alternate Side Records, a label he runs with a friend.) It also marks the first time he’s written music for vocal accompaniment as Catharsis – technically a pianoless quartet – added guest vocalist Camila Meza to the fold.
As a jazz listener, Keberle enjoys instrumental works. But when he listens to rock, he’s drawn to bands with strong lyric sensibilities – the Beatles, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead. He’s never really been able to combine those two sides of himself as a composer until now, he said. The idea to bring vocals to Catharsis came from both his wife – fellow Mead graduate Erica Drouin Keberle – and his publicist. “Both of them within a week said, ‘You should think about adding a vocalist. Your music is so sing-song,’ ” he said.
It’s more difficult than it sounds. As a pianoless quartet, with trombone, trumpet, bass and drums, “What Camila is doing is incredibly difficult,” he said, because there’s no “harmonic foundation for her to lean on. Typically when you have a vocalist singing, you have the piano or guitar to kind of lean on for tuning or intonation, in terms of where you fit into the harmony.”
Even without that, “She just nails it,” he said.
The album is getting some national attention. NPR featured Catharsis, which includes Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (bass) and Eric Doob (drums), as well as Meza, for a recent edition of their “Tiny Desk Concert” series. A review last month in the New York Times said Keberle is “onto something with Catharsis,” then continues: “There’s heart and soul in Mr. Keberle’s tunes – even at their trickiest, as in a workout with a wry title, ‘Without a Thought.’ For good measure, he throws in a few standards, including Charlie Parker’s ‘Cheryl.’ But the lasting impression is made by tunes like ‘Gallop,’ which could practically be a dynamic marking on the sheet music.”
Music roots at home
Considering Keberle grew up with musicians and music educators, it’s not surprising he’s made a career in music. His father, Dan, is a jazz trumpeter and music professor at Whitworth University who directs the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble. His mother, Ann Winterer, is a piano teacher and longtime church music director. According to his dad, Ryan started playing Suzuki violin at age 3, at about the same time as his mother started him on piano.
The violin, Keberle said, did not come naturally to him. The trombone – which his dad started him on – did.
The way his dad remembers it, when Ryan was in fifth grade, he asked what he should play. “I play trumpet, so I was like, ‘you don’t want to play trumpet,’ ” Dan Keberle said. “So yeah, trombone.”
The younger Keberle recalls a possible ulterior motive.
“My dad was always short trombone players,” he said.
Either way, he took to it. And by ninth grade, Dan Keberle recalls his son playing along to his jazz records by greats like John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon. And he loved to practice. Friends would call or come by and the teenager would beg off from hanging out, preferring to practice. “That’s the sign of a true musician,” his dad said.
He performed with the Spokane Youth Symphony, and as a teenager sat in with Spokane Jazz Orchestra and the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble – even traveling to Australia with them because the group needed another trombone player. He won many local and state music competitions and studied with the former principal trombonist for the Spokane Symphony, David Matterne.
“By the time he got to high school, he was a really advanced player,” Dan Keberle said.
After high school, he enrolled for a year at Whitworth, with a double major in physics and music. He then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music and after graduation joined the first class at Jazz at Julliard for his master’s degree.
His trombone teacher at Whitworth, Richard Strauch, who plays trombone with the Spokane Symphony, recalls the younger Keberle as a talented player with a clear passion for jazz.
“I think Ryan is one of those people, no matter what instrument he would have played, he would have been a virtuoso on it,” Strauch said.
Since moving away, Ryan Keberle hasn’t performed often for hometown fans. His last local gig was in May 2013, when he and his dad were the guest artists for a Spokane Jazz Orchestra concert.
“That was really fun for me,” Dan Keberle said. “He’s on a different level than me. I consider myself a good player and good teacher, but he’s an elite player.”
Good news for Spokane fans is that Keberle is bringing Catharsis and Meza to town in April as part of a West Coast tour.
“It’s going to be a big deal for us, and for me certainly,” he said. “It’ll be my first time back as a band leader.”
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