Sometimes in music, pop appeal and some kind of “seriousness”—an ambition to artistic achievement, we might call it—come together. Rock and soul achieved this in the 1960s with the Beatles and Marvin Gaye, for example. Jazz sat in that sweet spot during the swing era of Duke Ellington. Maybe Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West embody that convergence in hip-hop today.
Jazz today isn’t threatening to place Kamasi Washington as the musical guest on SNL (though that’s Lorne Michael’s fault, not Washington’s), but its best musicians are making the case that artistic ambition has grooves. It is fully compatible with music driven by Lennon and Gaye as well as Ellington and Ornette. And in most cases, the considerable appeal of jazz today is driven by influences wider still: from around the world and well beyond music too.
Ryan Keberle and his current band Catharsis are a prime example of this welcome direction. Keberle might seem like an unlikely candidate for jazz stardom—he is primarily a brilliant trombonist, after all — but his band is propulsive and infectious, grooving and gorgeous. Azul Infinito is their third recording, released on Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf label, and it is a sunrise of a record, a work simultaneously daring and easy on the ears.
Keberle released a couple of discs before forming Catharsis, with Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, Eric Doob on drums, and Jorge Roeder on bass. The first set from this group from 2012, Music Is Emotion, featured original tunes interspersed with McCartney’s “Julia”, Sufjan Stevens’ “Djohariah”, and blues from Art Farmer and Billy Strayhorn. It is tempting to put that forth as Keberle’s DNA in summary: classic jazz of a harmonically sumptuous vein, classic pop-rock, an indie streak, a great band. In Rodriguez, Keberle is paired with a soloist and partner who is a crackling dream. Together, they create interweaving lines that smack of Bird/Diz, Mulligan/Baker, Coleman/Cherry, yup, that good.
But on Into the Zone (2014), the band was expanded to include the vocals of Camila Meza, a Chilean guitarist and singer who was a quietly rising star in New York. The result was particularly magical. Meza was set into the fabric of the band as a wholly independent voice, usually not singing “on top” of the group but within it. “Zone” put her wordless vocals into the cycling, almost Philip Glass-ian weave of the horns, creating a more complex and compelling texture for Keberle’s harmolodic intrigue. And with “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” the band proved that it could reinvent standards for a new generation, still balancing Meza’s vocal talent with a focus on band interaction.
Azul Inifinito is the group’s best and most ambitious recording to date, something that builds on old methods while expanding into new territory. That territory, specifically, is music from South America. In five original songs and three covers of tunes by Ivan Lins, Sebastian Cruz, and Pedro Giraudo, Keberle creates a something much more than a “theme record”. Sure, Azul has an overriding main influence, but that influence acts as a catalyst to push Catharsis to more deeply and brilliantly explore the path it was already on. This music is fully integrated and constantly in movement. It is a revelation.
The opener, “I Thought I Knew” is a wind of wonder. Meza and horns start with a quick-shifting rondo of sound that is then caught and propelled forward by the rhythm section, which sets up a driving rhythm that lives in “four” and “three” at the same time. As the melody builds to a climax, Meza’s vocal moves to the top of the arrangement and Keberle and Rodriguez get beneath her and push her skyward “to outer space from which I won’t return”. That kind of pulsing momentum is also well-represented in “Quintessence”. A solid groove on a single chord let Rodriquez open the bidding, but soon Meza states a wordless jazz melody that is then picked up by trombone. Together then throb with a one-note figure that launches the improvisations. When the band breaks into walking-bass swing—a rare thing on Azul Inifinito—you love it all the more.
Specific South American forms and rhythms are central to Azul. “Cancion Mandala” rides on a crafty syncopated rhythm that moves the Spanish vocal forward in little nudges. Keberle adds his melodica (the somewhat toy-like keyboard that you blow into, creating a sound midway between a harmonica and a small organ) into the mix, and the arrangement becomes a woven pattern of pulses and voices. The closer, “Madalena”, works out over a Brazilian groove in which Meza’s bobbing, playful vocal is a full participant. The counterpoint between trombone and vocal on the head and then after the trumpet solo may be the coolest thing on the record. It’s all too rare that a singer (scatting in the latter section) and great improvisor seem like true equals.
Azul Infinito has a couple of slower songs that captivate. “She Sleeps Alone” sets up over a rising bass line and puts Meza and Rodriguez’s trumpet in a chilling unison. The collective improvisation in the middle is neither “free” nor merely running through chord changes, and sets up a funky return of the melody, stated by melodica. “La Ley Primera” is a slow ballad, but one still working from a Latin rhythmic base. Again, here, Catharsis does not suffer form the absence of a chording instrument like guitar or piano. The arrangement for two horns and bass brings forward a rich harmonic underpinning. Keberle’s solo here, over just bass and drums, is tonal wonder: buttery and bluesy at once.
“Eternity” is the album’s most ambitious piece, starting with a two-minute prelude that sets up a pulsing groove in 6/8 time. The solos take their time, beginning as trios and then slowing adding voices so that parallel three-part harmony is masterfully rising by the end of the trombone solo. The theme returns over drums, but now the whole band sings it, ending in an a cappella moment that sounds great.
My favorite feel on the record is funk underlying “Mr. Azul”, something wholly different from jazz or pop funk but just as ass-moving. Roeder gets a cool bass solo out front, after which the horns trade brief statements as Doob just lays in the groove. When the horns are grooving too at the end and Doob drops a syncopated parade rhythm, Meza barely has to made a sound as she floats above it all. You could sharpen a knife on this tune, it’s so clean and solid.
Compared to last year’s blockbuster three-CD beast by Kamasi Washington or this month’s throbbing masterpiece of Prince-ian jazz/pop by Esperanza Spalding, Catharsis’s Azul Infinito will be lost in the shower of superb jazz that is currently emerging. This record isn’t working a territory that gives it a shot at being reviewed, say, on Pitchfork or grabbing a headlines beyond the jazz press. It is chamber jazz, I suppose, world music, too steeped in trombone solos and non-English lyrics to make a dent in the public consciousness.
But that won’t dilute your enthusiasm for this level of appealing, melody-rich, rhythmic creativity if you just open your ears. All that Keberle and Catharsis need is an audience that will tune in without prejudice. This is the stuff you’ll like more than you think. It is so rich in flavor and feeling. In its own way, it is the jazz we’ve all been waiting for — so much more than a string of solos and steeped in feeling and drama.
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