The “zone” of this album’s title refers to the zen-like state of being where one inhabits the creative moment, unimpeded by self-consciousness. It’s an ongoing goal of trombonist-composer Ryan Keberle, who proclaimed that the last record with his band Catharsis, Music is Emotion, was “music from the heart and soul and not from the brain.” As the son and grandson of professional musicians, and one trained and now teaching in musical academia, Keberle seems like an especially paradoxical acolyte for this viewpoint. Fortunately he keeps releasing compelling music that feels both heartfelt and cerebral.
Catharsis is a pianoless quartet, with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez joining Keberle on the front line while drummer Eric Doob and bassist Jorge Roeder move back and forth between acting as a traditional rhythm section and lead voices. The new element on Into the Zone is Chilean singer Camila Meza. Her wordless vocals add crucial depth to “Gallop,” which is based on the African-Uruguayan calombe rhythm that was a forerunner to the tango. Meza also puts a dulcet sparkle in the closing track, “Zone,” as Keberle breaks out the melodica on a recording for the first time in his career. Meza forsakes melisma and sings the lyrics to a pair of droopy ballads, a pace that works better on the aching “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” than Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Keberle’s third choice for a cover tune is a measured yet inventive rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl,” featuring tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson, who also appears on “Gallop.”
Of the five Keberle originals, “Without a Thought” best suits his exercise, with the horns and Roeder delivering fierce but gliding solos off a repetitive eight-note vamp. But all his compositions still carry an internal integrity that stems from his own scholarship and his tutelage in creative big bands led by Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue. He is, at heart, an excellent arranger and an underrated soloist of contagious creativity, capable of making everyone feel at home.