Ryan Meagher: Telling Stories


“I made the decision pretty early on that jazz music was going to be a huge part of my identity when I was growing up in California. But New York City made a man out of me,” Meagher says.

(Photo: Angelica Lammers)

Portland, Oregon-based guitarist Ryan Meagher abides by the power of certain “E” words: He practices eclecticism of style, expansive creative thinking and his long-held belief in the DIY energies for getting things done.

He has built up a sizable discography over the past 20 years, including titles on Fresh Sound, the Portland-based PJCE label and his own Atroefy imprint. His resume includes performances with Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Randy Brecker, Cuong Vu and fellow northwesterner David Friesen.

But something fresh has arrived with Meagher’s new AftEarth project. Created in collaboration with artist Tina Granzo during the pandemic, AftEarth is an environment-themed song set with accompanying drawings and a series of videos in a multifaceted package. Describing the origin of his latest artistic development, Meagher notes, “Almost all of us artists are rethinking what an album is and can be. By attaching art to music, I was hoping it would make people slow down and think about what they were hearing. So, I do think that connecting other forms of media to their music is one way that artists can connect with audiences.”

Musically, the terrain is in constant flux through the album’s sequence, from progressive rock to atmospheric moments in line with post-rock to more identifiably jazz-lined tunes. His guitar tones vary to suit, and he has a strong empathetic alliance with Portland jazz players Tim Wilcox on saxophone, bassist Andrew Jones, drummer Charlie Doggett and keyboardist-engineer Clay Giberson.

Meagher says that the album’s diverse fabric is “really just a reflection of me and my musical development. I grew up as a white kid in the suburbs in the 1990s. The alternative rock from that era forged the walls of my soul, and Black American music filled it to the brim. I was just writing and playing the only way I know how, which is as much Nirvana, Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine as it is Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.”

As such, Meagher belongs to a breed of naturally eclectic modern musicians — especially relevant to the rock-aligned world of electric guitar. When asked for a short list of his major influences, the guitarist’s reference points are expectedly all over various maps. “Some that have had huge influences on my music are Nirvana and Coltrane for energy, Wes Montgomery and Miles for feel, Pat Metheny and Jim Hall for sound, Jim Black and Bill Frisell for vibe, Paul Motian and Nels Cline for the spirit of adventure, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Clifford Brown for vocabulary and Zach Galifianakis for looks.”

Since landing in Portland in 2012, Meagher has become ever more entrenched and engaged in the active jazz scene and is currently the artistic director of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE). But his life and attendant musical path extend back to his upbringing in San Jose, California, studies in San Diego and an enriching stint living in New York before the westward move to Portland.

“I made the decision pretty early on that jazz music was going to be a huge part of my identity when I was growing up in California. But New York City made a man out of me,” Meagher says. “I don’t think I could be who I am today without California and New York City. That being said, Portland is home, and it’s now the place where I have spent most of my adult life. We have our issues here, like any place, but I love our city. And I feel honored I get to help shape some of how our city’s cultural contributions are understood.”

Meagher has fully embraced his musical life and cultural role in Portland. “We have a treasure trove of brilliant musicians here,” he asserts. “There is no shortage of inspiring artists on any instrument. Many of them have earned their stripes in cities with established scenes like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. And some of them are from here, and inspire me as much as my favorite artists that might be more well-known.”

Guiding Meagher’s multifaceted musical life and productive workflow is a strong DIY impulse, which has become an increasingly critical factor in making an independent jazz life function. “I have always been inclined to make things happen,” he says. “I remember organizing a local band festival at my high school when I was 15 years old. When I moved to New York, I started jam sessions at local restaurants and bars. When I first moved to Portland, I started a jazz composer’s jam session, which is how I got introduced to the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble.

“It is a bit of a DIY ethic, I suppose, but I’m just trying to get shit done and make something happen for myself and the people with whom I like to create. Right now, I am busy programming the PJCE’s future with things like a jazz musical theater piece, collaborations with local legends, partnerships with like-minded organizations and a suite dedicated to telling the story of Oregon’s wild spaces. I will keep telling my story through music, but I really like helping others’ stories get told in the process. I like making music about people and places.” DB

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December 2023
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