Ryan Keberle & Catharsis Continue to Fight for Social Justice on Langston Hughes-inspired The Hope I Hold, Out June 28 on Greenleaf Music
Acclaimed working band now features Camila Meza on guitar and vocals, Scott Robinson on sax and Keberle on keys and vocals in addition to trombone; The Hope I Hold also features four Catharsis Trio tracks
As with so many great working jazz bands, the trombonist and composer Ryan Keberle & Catharsis have become known for a specific, almost codified set of signatures. Critics writing for such outlets as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, Billboard, DownBeat and JazzTimes have praised Keberle’s inventive approach to small-group bandleading, writing and arranging. Take, for example, his group’s purposeful lack of a chordal instrument, which allowed Keberle and company to focus on urgent counterpoint and elastic rhythmic interplay. Or the fact that one of Catharsis’ frontline instruments was the crystalline voice of Chilean singer Camila Meza. Or Keberle’s determined belief that music can be a catalyst for justice and positive social change.
Now, after four acclaimed studio albums, Keberle & Catharsis are departing, expanding and progressing with their new full-length, The Hope I Hold, out June 28 on Greenleaf Music. It’s an album full of welcome firsts. To start, it’s the first Catharsis release to feature the genius multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson on saxophone, alongside band veterans Keberle, Meza, the Peruvian-born bassist Jorge Roeder and the drummer Eric Doob. Robinson, whom Keberle calls “my favorite living improvisor,” is a delightful presence throughout The Hope I Hold, his feathery lines and mellifluous tone providing a peerless grasp of the gamut of jazz history.
The new album also marks the debut of Meza as the group’s guitarist, in addition to her often wordless contributions as a vocalist; as Keberle puts it, “Camila being the masterful guitarist that she is, it simply made sense.” The Hope I Hold underscores Keberle’s evolving roles as well, and features him not only on trombone but on vocals and keyboards as well, showcasing crucial parts of his skill set that are deep-rooted yet unfamiliar even to many of his fans. (Interesting fact: For his first six years in New York City, Keberle worked at a Catholic church as a music director, singer, pianist and organist.) And on four tracks, Keberle, Meza and Roeder debut the Catharsis Trio, a resourceful, chamber-ish unit whose identity, at once unique yet undeniably based in the larger group’s language, was forged on a Japanese tour.
But perhaps the most important unfolding on The Hope I Hold relates to the album’s theme of optimism in the face of political and cultural corruption, building upon notions first expressed on 2017’s acclaimed Catharsis release, Find the Common, Shine a Light. Keberle’s experience working with the lyricist and poet Mantsa Miro (a.k.a. Manca Weeks) helped to ignite a burgeoning interest in songwriting and the complex ways in which words can artfully meld with music. So when Keberle came across “Let America Be America Again,” a virtuosic poem written by Langston Hughes in 1935, he felt compelled to incorporate its eerily (and sadly) relevant verse into his new work. “When I discuss this poem at concerts, the audience starts to chuckle once they hear the title—they think I’m joking,” Keberle explains. “They can’t believe how similar it is to another slogan we’re hearing these days.” Keberle appreciated the distinctly American duality at the poem’s core: Despite Hughes’ powerful and poignant assessment that the American Dream has been a fallacy for so many of the country’s disenfranchised citizens, the marathon piece also harbors a message of idealism—a hope that that Dream could one day become a reality.
In its narratives, The Hope I Hold is also informed deeply by Keberle’s extensive recent touring, which he was able to partake in due to a year-long sabbatical from Hunter College, where he’s been the director of jazz studies for the past 16 years. Wholly transformative, Keberle’s travels ranged far and wide, from the rural U.S. to all over Europe, Brazil, Cuba and Japan. In small town America, Keberle and his band found fervent, curious audiences with a serious thirst for the arts and culture that often goes unquenched; in Europe, with its considerable governmental support for the arts, listeners were, not surprisingly, discerning as well as enthusiastic. As in Cuba, exuberant music seemed to soundtrack every waking moment of life in Brazil; but below the festive South American rhythms on the street was an overwhelming specter of corporatization and corruption. “If you’ve ever wondered what the United States might look like after another 20 years of the kind of deregulation that our current administration is working hard to institute,” Keberle says, “just travel to Brazil.”
The music of Brazil—especially the genre-bending, psychedelia-tinged work of Milton Nascimento, Egberto Gismonti, Toninho Horta, Sérgio Mendes and others—is a potent influence on Keberle’s new album, along with so many other ideas and idioms. The album’s flagship is its Hughes-inspired namesake suite, a product of Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works grant program. The lead-off track, “Tangled in the Ancient Endless Chain,” acts as an overture of sorts, warming listeners up to Catharsis’ new sonic palette. “Despite the Dream” underscores Keberle’s recent obsession with South American music. A snowballing dirge, “America Will Be” is a stunning metaphor for strife through sound, and fans of Meza’s guitar playing will be surprised by her role here as an avant-rock provocateur. The nimble orchestral momentum of “Fooled and Pushed Apart” anticipates the retro atmosphere of “Campinas,” which wears its trippy Brazilian influences on its sleeve. (Keyboard collectors take note: Those great space-age analog synth tones are coming from Keberle’s Korg Minilogue.)
The trio portion, a kind of album-within-the-album that fits in seamlessly nonetheless, begins with Meza’s tender tour de force “Para Volar,” and continues with Roeder’s beautiful “Peering,” which constitutes the first of the bassist’s original compositions to appear on a recording. On the heartrending “Zamba,” by the legendary Argentinean folksinger Cuchi Leguizamón, Meza and Roeder form a breathtaking vocal tandem. An evocative new trio arrangement of Keberle’s “Become the Water” finds the trombonist on keyboard and harmony vocals.
Closing out the project is a return to the title suite called “Epilogue: Make America Again”—two minutes of stately, majestic harmony that Keberle describes as “a musical prayer for peace.”
“It’s a simple kind of hymn,” he adds. “And hopefully it will inspire some change in this country.”