Ryan Keberle’s third album as a leader is not as different from the first two as he might imagine — and that’s a good thing. The son and grandson of professional musicians, Keberle studied at the Manhattan School of Music and graduated from Juilliard, has a prime seat in some of the most adventurous big bands today, including those led by Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue, and teaches at Hunter College. So it is hard not to hear a little defensiveness when he writes in the liner notes, “This record is about music from the heart and the soul and not from the brain.”
Keberle probably underestimates the wonderful emotional transparency of his striking compositions and arrangements on his first two discs, especially the second one, Heavy Dreaming. But where those records featured a “double quartet” instrumentation of Keberle’s trombone with rhythm section abetted by four other brass players, Music Is Emotion scales it back to a piano-less quartet, with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez joining him on the front line. The fewer musicians creates greater intimacy, and more chances and space for each member of the ensemble (named Catharsis), to express himself.
Thus, the interplays and calls-and-responses are more individual or duo on Emotion than on denser, earlier discs. It starts right away with “Big Kick Blues,” where bassist Jorge Roeder sets the pulse and the horns follow; later, Keberle and Rodriguez take turns being the refractory moon off each other’s sun — and the blues is served with heart, brain and soul.
For the third straight disc, Keberle pays tribute to the Beatles with a cover song, this one “Julia,” which rolls out a moving horn treatment and then let Roeder go off on a solo. This happens on a majority of the ten songs — the bassist is pervasively in the spotlight and delivers his personality without disrupting the emotional or structural texture of the tune. Other covers include Billy Strayhorn (“Blues In Orbit”) and Art Farmer (“Bluesport”) both with guest saxophonist Scott Robinson, enabling Keberle to bring back the “little big band” feel that is a virtue of his writing. And check out “Carbon Neutral” which open with two minutes of the irrepressible Roeder on arco. In sum, then, another smart, but heartfelt Ryan Keberle outing — hope he gives himself an emotional pat on the back.