Keberle’s ‘Catharsis’ Brings Concise, Eloquent Jazz to Chicago

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Camila Meza (left), Ryan Keberle and Scott Robinson perform in Seattle as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival on March 13 (Photo: Daniel Sheehan / eyeshotjazz.com)

Trombonist and bandleader Ryan Keberle brought his sharp, eloquent band Catharsis to Chicago on March 17, concluding a weeklong jaunt through the Midwest with two sets at the Hungry Brain.

The group was touring in support of its recent album Azul Infinito (Greenleaf), a breezy yet rigorous exploration and tribute to the South American folkloric styles that impacted the bandleader soon after he arrived in New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music from Spokane, Washington. In the 17 years since, he’s worked closely with musicians from that continent, whether in jazz contexts or in more folkloric projects, listening, absorbing and assimilating a huge range of styles and traditions.

For the recording project, Keberle expanded his working quartet with the addition of New York-based Chilean singer Camila Meza. While she was part of the band that performed in Chicago, none of the other original players—trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, bassist (and Peruvian expat) Jorge Roeder and drummer Eric Doob—made the trek, which initially made me wonder if this was really Catharsis at all.

Within a few minutes into “Quintessence,” the set opener that Keberle composed in honor of the lyrical Brazilian singer-songwriter Ivan Lins, those concerns vanished. A handful of shows together before rolling into Chicago had sharpened the rapport of a top-flight crew of regular subs—bassist Edward Perez, saxophonist Scott Robinson and drummer Henry Cole—who ripped through the Catharsis material as if had been doing so for years. 

On the show opener, Robinson nicely altered the timbre of the studio recording of the tune, his plush tenor dancing acrobatically over the muscular vamp played by Perez; the trombonist followed with a solo of his own, deftly accented by wordless curlicues and countermelodic fillips.

Throughout the evening, Perez and Cole were marvels, easily navigating the wide array of South American rhythms—such as the furious Argentine chacarera groove that Keberle used on “I Thought I Knew,” one of several pieces for which he collaborated with New York poet Manca Miro, who provided lyrics to this tribute to bassist and composer Pedro Giraudo.

Despite the strong South American influence, the group rarely sounded it as if it was playing the music of that region. Indeed, apart from its version of the lovely Lins tune “Madalena,” most of repertoire from the new record was distinguished largely by the rich contrapuntal feel that Keberle and his frontline partners—whether Rodriguez of Robinson—generated together.

Although her occasional guitar playing was largely superfluous, there was nothing tentative or ornamental about Meza’s singing, which lithely threaded its way into the band’s airy but forceful polyrhythmic attack. The group also tackled a song by the poetic Uruguayan pop singer and composer Jorge Drexler,” “El Otro Lado del Rio,” which recast the guitar tune as a plush jazz ballad. In fact, one of the things that made the evening special was how Keberle both honored the qualities that make his sources so unique, while couching them firmly in the jazz tradition he regularly plies in the Maria Schneider Orchestra and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, among others.

The group did dip into its past with a couple of convincing blues. After Keberle promised to cool things down a bit, Cole did anything but, unleashing a rolling, hard-hitting solo that opened up the band’s gorgeous reading of Duke Ellington’s “Blues In Orbit,” the Catharsis version of which includes Robinson sitting in.

The performance was remarkable—seductively slow, with Perez carving out a deep bottom for a keening solo by Robinson and full-bodied, motifically dazzling turn from the leader. Meza sat out for the second set opener, “Big Kick Blues,” from the band’s 2013 debut Music Is Emotion (Alternate Sides) a fluid, syncopated jam with electric interplay in the frontline.

The group also previewed new material from a forthcoming album, which Keberle promised to be a collection of protest songs, noting the challenging political environment of the U.S. this year. On one such tune, titled “Become the Water,” pushed the group deep into Joni Mitchell territory, with Keberle adding some simpatico unison piano lines with Meza’s singing, while Robinson bobbed and weaved his way through lighter-than-air lines.

For an encore, the group tackled another song well outside the jazz repertoire: “Sister,” by Sufjan Stevens, a pop singer with whom the trombonist has often toured. As a welcomed change, Keberle underlined the bittersweet melody on melodica.

Despite the seeming stylistic sprawl, everything Keberle and Catharsis performed sounded of a magnificent piece—luxuriantly melodic, pulse-quickening in its rhythmic fervor and rich in its timbre—suggesting that the trombonist has developed a sound bigger than his personnel. DB

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