Meditations on Music: Ryan Keberle and Catharsis

Guest artist Ryan Keberle playing trombone on stage.
Photo by Taylor Blackson.

The group Catharsis is trombonist Ryan Keberle’s vehicle for his compositions and distinctly arranged covers that dip in and out of jazz roots to bring together other traditions, echoing the leader’s background of playing with musicians such as Sufjan Stevens and Maria Schneider. At their Lawrence stop, Catharsis was a tight quintet of trombonist and occasionally keyboardist Keberle, vocalist and guitarist Camila Meza, tenor saxophonist and trumpeter Scott Robinson, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Eric Doob.

Right as they began playing, a broader sound palette was introduced, with warm synth forming a foundation for delayed and pitch-shifted electric bass, reversed guitar and Robinson using the acoustics of sheet music for a percussive layer. While these first couple of minutes were some of the most unconventional and surprising moments, they opened up the performance well, showing they were not afraid to experiment with electronics in a jazz context. This use of electronics is rarer than expected in many groups today. There is often a concern of electronics sticking out too much and going against the tradition, but Catharsis incorporated these underused voices well – the synth providing blankets of scaffolding and the pedals pulling me into the rhythmic string instruments. Their presence certainly did not detract or distract from Keberle’s writing and the other voices. Instead, they took the ensemble to new places, making for a refreshing concert of captivating writing that embraced its many components.

The compositions and arrangements – artfully blended together by Keberle’s voice on the page – ushered in a wide variety of music while still maintaining a cohesion by use of frequent interlocking ostinato rhythms and melodies. Whether it was a cover of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington or others, the confidence each musician had in their role within Keberle’s music was apparent. With commitment came drive, and with drive came effortless engagement with the music – for the band and as a listener. Simply put, it was easy to enjoy because the quintet gave it their all, but this energy was measured and controlled. Even at their most intense moments, the entirety of Catharsis was listening and wringing it in.

A particular cover stood out for me – Ellington’s “Blues in Orbit.” Ellington is well known for orchestrating and composing for specific musicians in his ensemble, and Keberle seemed to take this sentiment to heart for his re-arrangement of the tune, featuring some of the best aspects of various musicians in the group. The cover began with a snowball-down-a-hill drum solo, Doob going from fingers to hands to sticks before the rest of the band joined. Robinson was also highlighted but instead of his usual saxophone playing, he switched to trumpet. His subdued sound was right at home in a short upright bass and trumpet duo, one of the quietest and most stripped-down parts of the concert. Throughout the night, the group’s varied styles, sounds and approaches never came off as hyperactive or unfocused, but many-faceted and versatile.

Catharsis has a clear leader, and the relationship between Keberle (as a frontman, trombonist and writer) and the other musicians is what makes for inspiring and enjoyable music. He guides them a fair amount, but through his guidance, the qualities that set them apart are emphasized. Robinson was an ideal foil for Keberle’s trombone playing – the two playing off rhythm-based ideas and feeding off each other’s unbridled energy. Keberle leaned toward the style of Latin jazz and brass band while Robinson leaned towards multiphonics and freer sounds. Meza counteracted this with her fluid guitar lines that contrasted with her intervallic singing that was not quite jazz and not quite folk. Clohesy’s bass melodies fit right into all of it, his technique intertwining with Meza’s. Doob paired well with Clohesy, whether they were building grooves together or not, and even at his most understated, he never backed down.

Each musician was steadfast in their personal direction, but still malleable and influenced by each other. It is always a pleasure to see a band with such focus also retain a sense of exploration, and in Catharsis’ case, their writing and members brought that out even more.