Even without the influence of parents and both sets of grandparents who were, or still are, performers and music educators, trombonist Ryan Keberle knows that music would have played some part in his life.
But, as the son of jazz trumpeter and Whitworth University music professor Dan Keberle and piano teacher and church music director Ann Winterer, Keberle’s path was practically decided for him.
“It was more or less a given,” he said. “It was unavoidable.” Keberle, born and raised in Spokane, began playing violin at age 4 or 5, then eventually added piano and trombone, at his father’s behest, to his résumé.
“I like to tell this story – I’m not sure if it’s entirely accurate, but he was always short trombonists in his big bands, so I think he was cultivating me for the day when I might be able to participate,” Keberle said with a laugh.
That day came quickly. Keberle began playing with the Whitworth jazz ensemble at 14 or 15. He called the opportunity an “unbelievable head start” on playing a professional repertoire and with more experienced musicians.
On Saturday, Keberle and his band Catharsis will reunite with the Whitworth jazz ensemble, which is directed by his father, at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
Over time, Keberle dropped the violin, the instrument which came the least naturally to him, to focus on trombone and piano. He quickly made a name for himself as a member of the Spokane Youth Symphony and a top-level performer in festivals and competitions across the state.
A 1996 article in The Spokesman-Review, for example, mentioned that Keberle won a gold metal in the brass and percussion division at the Greater Spokane Music Allied Arts Festival, an event Keberle said he competed in every year during junior high and high school.
Even still, Keberle did briefly juggle math, physics and music while a student at Whitworth.
“The idea was to try to do both, but I think it was so much of a given, ‘Hey, I might as well try something else as well because of course I’ll be playing music’,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to avoid it. It was like, ‘What else might I partake in because music is always going to be there?’ ”
After a year at Whitworth, playing in ensembles and taking trombone and piano lessons, Keberle realized that if he really wanted to pursue music, he had to actually pursue it. He transferred to Manhattan School of Music for his undergraduate degree.
Since graduating, Keberle’s career has included stints with Sufjan Stevens, Ivan Lins, the “Saturday Night Live” house band, Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Rufus Reid and Wynton Marsalis.
Since 2004, Keberle also has directed the jazz program at City University’s Hunter College. Over the past few years, Keberle has been focused on his band Catharsis. Keberle and Catharsis released their latest album, “The Hope I Hold,” in June.
The album, which was partially funded through a Chamber Music America composition grant, was largely inspired by Keberle’s foray into lyric writing. Generally, Keberle worked on music without lyrics with Catharsis vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza singing “wordless vocals.”
But his newfound interest in lyrics led Keberle to study lyrics in other songs and read more poetry. When he stumbled onto Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” around the same time he received the Chamber Music America grant, he realized he had found something he could set to music.
“It’s an incredibly powerful piece of American art,” he said. “In my opinion, Langston Hughes is one of the great American artists in history, and I had never heard about this piece. I was struck by how relevant it is today, almost 90 years later, and also struck by, in certain cases, the musical nature of the words.”
The poem comprises much of the album, which was recorded in the fall of 2018. “The Hope I Hold” really started to take shape in the studio rather than, as is usual for Keberle and Catharsis, by workshopping the album live onstage.
“That’s really when the band starts to make the music their own,” Keberle said. “Before then, it’s my music and something that sits on a page. In jazz settings, generally speaking it doesn’t become as good as it can get until each musician in the band starts to personalize and internalize the music themselves.”
The band recorded in drummer Eric Doob’s home studio, which gave them plenty of time to experiment and get to know the music. Catharsis is often a quintet – Keberle, Meza, Doob, bassist Jorge Roeder and saxophonist/trumpeter Scott Robinson.
But for his performance with the Whitworth jazz ensemble, Keberle will be joined by Meza and Pedro Giraudo, who he met as a student at Manhattan School of Music.
Keberle is excited to bring his music and his band to the West Coast, something that doesn’t happen often. And, of course, to return to his old stomping grounds.
Before attending Whitworth, Keberle recalls swimming in the Whitworth rec center and attending his father’s on-campus events and services at Whitworth Presbyterian Church.
“I’m going to have a ton of friends and family in the audience, so that really makes the performance a real highlight for me because it’s so rare for that to happen,” he said.
“Usually we’re performing for complete strangers, and there’s something to be said for that, as well, but this is a unique experience for sure, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
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