The title track of the new Ryan Meagher [pronounced MARR] CD “Lost Days” skips along with heart and a sense of fun. When Meagher’s guitar enters, the song suddenly has sass and edge. The reverb momentarily becomes the focal point, after which the band sashays forward again; a song on the move to groove.
“South Slope” is a jumpy ride with piano then takes a chill pill with Meagher. “Deep Ocean Hall” showcases the warm, beautiful tones of the sax and crisp tick-tocking by percussion. Like a ball of entangled yarn, the song “Meagher” plays insistently with overlapping melodies between piano and guitar; rather than being muddled, the effect is double-patterned and fugue-like.
Inventive and stirring, “Lost Days” is a treat. If you can catch Ryan Meagher’s band around his home base of Portland – or elsewhere – you’ll be refreshed by the experience.
When did you learn guitar?
I picked up the guitar around seventh grade. Trumpet was my first instrument. My middle school band director made me switch from trumpet to trombone so when I was done with middle school I threw the trombone in the trash and stuck with the guitar I had been messing around with. I sort of knew about jazz, but I didn’t really dive into it until sophomore year of high school.
Do you remember when you first heard jazz?
I think the first time I heard jazz and knew that it was jazz was a Louis Armstrong compilation my mom and dad bought me.
I do know the exact moment when I knew jazz was going to be the thing I did for the rest of my life. Somehow, I ended up being the only freshman that made it into my high school jazz band in San Jose, California. I didn’t know how to read music on guitar, and I didn’t know that many chords, so I have no idea how that happened. I liked it enough to stick around for my sophomore year. We were at a jazz band festival in Fullerton, California, and I happened across a little table selling CDs. I had some travel money to burn so I bought the only CD with any name I recognized. I had just seen the Richard Dreyfuss movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and the name John Coltrane was mentioned a few times so I decided to go with that one since they seemed to make a big deal out of Coltrane in the movie.
On the bus ride back to San Jose I popped “Blue Train” into my DiscMan and the entire world disappeared. The first thing I noticed was just the sound of the recording. It was dark, and clear, and warm, and exotic. It almost felt like I wasn’t supposed to be hearing this secret thing that was happening. And then Lee Morgan started blowing. His sheer virtuosity was something that I had not heard before. I was blown away by his technique. And then he dropped a bomb on me. The first time I heard Lee Morgan shout that blues lick after the implied double time on “Blue Train,” it ruined my life. It was at that moment I knew that jazz is what I was going to be doing with the rest of my life. I still get a tingle in my spine and at the top of my head when I hear that lick.
How would you compare your sound today with your first album “Sun Resounding”?
Oh, geez… That “album” is sort of embarrassing. I mean, I am really glad I did it, because it led to a lot of practicing and it helped me get a lot of gigs around New York because I finally had a “thing.” But I cringe pretty hard when I hear anything from that recording now. It was recorded fourteen years ago!
Not a lot has changed in my sound (or tone) since then. In fact, I still use that guitar as my main instrument most of the time. I’m now using a different amp (a Fuchs Audio Technologies Jazz Classic Combo), but my gear has not changed a whole lot. My technique has gotten better, but my approach to creating sound hasn’t changed much. I am pretty confident with the sound I produce on my instrument.
Who’s in your ensemble and what do you appreciate most about them?
The quartet I play with most often in Portland is Tim Willcox (tenor sax), Chris Higgins (bass), and Charlie Doggett (drums). Readers can catch some of that group on my 2016 release, “Mist. Moss. Home.” I could write tomes extolling the musical and personal virtues of these fine men.
When it comes to my musical sensibilities, these three men are more aligned than any others I have come across in Portland. In fact, it goes beyond Portland. After a few years of performing, recording, and hanging out with Tim, Chris, and Charlie, I feel there is something special in the way we play improvised music. Most of the time, we play music that I have composed (and sometimes it is composed with their individual personalities in mind). Other times we play more standard repertoire. Sometimes we play completely free of any musical constraint.
Last summer we had the pleasure of playing a “tribute” show that I dare say has been like no other tribute show Portland has offered. The All Across the City concert at Lan Su Chinese Gardens was a special event, indeed. The four of us played music from the Paul Desmond/Jim Hall songbook, or tunes inspired by those two. We peppered in a few originals inspired by their music, and even employed a student string section from the Metropolitan Youth Symphony (where I direct the jazz program) to add to some of the subtle drama that music elicits.
If I had to boil down everything I like about playing with those three musicians, it would have to be that it is high-risk/high-reward, while at the same time, never boiling over. The way improvisation is approached, repetition is not valued. We seek to play differently each time we play a tune. Some of the worst energy we have experienced is when we try to recreate something special that has happened when we were not even trying. And though we all possess enough technique on our own instruments to freely display it whenever we want, we tend to hold it back and only wield it at opportune times. We try to serve the music and serve each other.
What’s surprising or notable about the jazz scene in Portland?
I moved here from New York, and I had not played with a single person in Portland. I only knew one piano player named Clay Giberson. We had met through friends in New York a year or two before I moved here. One of the things I was worried about (coming from New York) was that I would be a “big fish in a small pond,” or that I would not be challenged enough.
There were two reasons why I thought this might be the case. One, I was coming from New York and New Yorkers tend to think that everything revolves around them and that everything in New York is the best thing ever and everything else outside of New York is garbage. That is obviously overstating it and completely false, but at the same time, every New Yorker reading that is like, “Yea… that’s about right.”
When it came to Portland, I am glad I was so stupid and wrong. The depth of the talent pool in Portland is so unfathomable. There is a lot we can work on as a scene, but I am happy to report to any readers interested in Portland as a place to experience jazz… there are some bad cats here.
What inspires you to compose?
Currently…people. And places. And the memories of those two things.
What does the title of your new CD, “Lost Days,” mean to you?
“Lost Days” is the title track. The impetus for the tune spawned from a mournful remembrance of youth and frivolity. That’s a tasteful way of saying that I was hungover in an empty room with my best friend’s terrible guitar and came up with a cool riff in between moving boxes out of his house.
I was in Morgan Hill, California (just south of San Jose, where we grew up), and somehow got suckered into helping my buddy move, even though I was just visiting! There is an in-depth account of how the tune was inspired on my website in the “On-Liner Notes” of Lost Days. I urge listeners to check that out and listen to the track. I am curious as to whether the sentiment lands with the listener or not. “Where does time go?” “Remember when…?” “We’re not going to let each other slip away, are we?”
What was the most challenging track to produce?
I guess that would have to be “Meagher.” It was challenging to even put a track on my record that has my last name as its title. Alas, as noted in the on-liner notes, I didn’t write or title this track. It started as a tribute to saxophonist Matt Otto. He looked at it, thought it was too hard/weird, and sent this tune back to me. It is the Joe Henderson tune “Inner Urge” in 7/4, but with a terribly angular melody (for which, I suppose, I am mostly responsible). It was a hard melody for all of us to execute (except Colligan who hasn’t been challenged by any music since he was eleven years old).
How long was this CD in the making?
It is hard to answer that. I would say that we produced the record quickly. We recorded everything in two days in April last year. We had to, because Bill McHenry lives in Barcelona, Spain most of the year and was only in Portland for a few days. I edited, mixed, and mastered the record in the week or two after that. The art work and design were whipped up by my aunt, Treas Manning. After that, it was just about timing the release with the label, the publicist, and my own schedule.
The release date got pushed back a couple times because of the holiday season, other releases on the record label, and me just being busy. After everything, we recorded in April and it was released in late January, the following year.
What did release day look like?
It was NUTS! A few production problems happened around the time of release, so the hard copies of the CD didn’t arrive in Portland from Barcelona (where the label is based) until the day of the CD release! I was on my computer tracking the location of the UPS package down to the specific street the truck was on. When it was in my neighborhood I hopped in my car and tracked the driver down. Luckily, our UPS delivery guy knows us pretty well, so it wasn’t much of a bother to get the package from him. Thankfully, I had plenty of CDs in hand for the CD release party that night at Jack London Revue (one of the few bona fide jazz clubs we have in Portland, currently).
The show went swimmingly. George Colligan was on Hammond organ, and Willcox, Higgins, and Doggett rounded out the quintet. The show was packed, and the energy was remarkable on both sides of the stage.
What was the most rewarding part of creating this album?
Making music. Hearing those guys play on my tunes. Giving Mark Ferber a hard time (just like old times). I also love giving my aunt’s photography a different avenue for expression. I think that her photography is pretty special, and I love sharing it with people. It was also nice to put some of the tunes in my book to rest. Some of the tunes had been cooking for years, and I am just happy to put them out there and get them out of jazz composition purgatory.
Is it difficult to be innovative in marketing?
I mean… yea. When it comes to my music, my writing, my interactions with other human beings (or animals for that matter), I just want to be honest. I suck at lying. I am the worst at pretending to be other people, or even pretending to display an emotion I do not actually feel. I am like the opposite of an actor. This attribute has some benefit, but a lot of unintended social consequences, as well.
I gravitate towards art music because it does not give a fuck if it makes $1. It just has to be. Pop music, while not completely devoid of honesty or emotion, by its very nature needs money. That is what pop music is. Pop music is intended for consumption. It is commercial. Art music isn’t even intended. It just is.
What was your most memorable performance?
Best Memory: This is a hard question to answer because it is hard to pick a direction to go. The most memorable live performance where I walked off the stage and knew that was the best I was capable of playing was recorded and released as an album Tango in the City of Roses. My most memorable gig in New York might be my set with my quartet at Cornelia Street Café that sold out right before I moved, or the set I played with Jim Black when I first moved to NYC, or many others. Okay, I am going to pin this down to, “The most memorable performance I have had is when I played with the Downbeat Poll Winning ensemble “Mostly Other People Do the Killing” last February and took a solo cadenza where I just tuned my guitar for five minutes.”
Worst Memory: I played a trio gig at the Garage (now defunct) in New York with Sam Trapchak (bass) and Mark Ferber (drums) back in 2013. It was just such a bad gig. Not because of anyone, but me. Sam and Mark are such pros that they could sound good no matter the circumstance. I have a massive and fragile ego that is completely self-destructive at the faintest sign of adversity. I started playing poorly which is hard enough on its own. And then some drunk guy starts yelling, heckling, and banging on the brass railing at the front of our stage. It totally got me off my game. Thanks to miracle of modern recording technology, I have a high-quality recording of that set and the banter between sets where I note, “This is the worst gig of my life.”
Recent Memory: Last week, I played a set of Lee Morgan tunes with trumpeter Terell Stafford. After the set, he came and hugged me and said, “You play the shit out of that guitar!” That felt good. The after shock was felt a few days later when he followed up with an e-mail replying to my recommendation of someone for an academic posting saying, “Thank you, Ryan. You are an incredible musician!”
Prefer big concert halls, festivals, or small clubs?
I prefer sitting in with the Keith Jarrett Trio at Carnegie Hall to thousands of adoring fans after we tear the roof off playing “I Loves You Porgy.” And then I wake up… and play an improvised duo set at a local tavern on a Monday night for nine people and walk away with $7 and heartburn from the two PBRs I was comped.
What makes jazz “modern”?
To me, “modern” means experimentation. It means not only possessing but displaying virtuosity. Modernity means that the traditions from which we emerge are valid but not as viable as they once were. Unfortunately, it comes with a certain amount of elitism. Modernist art tends to alienate itself from a wider audience.
As a teacher, do you feel more students are becoming interested in jazz?
It seems to me that the number of students that care about what jazz is or is not dwindles every year. I am not saying that students do not care about jazz. It just seems that students younger than me are not as concerned with labels. Not just music, but nearly everything. I mean, even the masters of jazz cannot agree on the criteria that makes jazz jazz. But the things that students seem to be drawn toward about jazz music, in general, is its celebration of individuality and the challenges it presents musically.
What’s the most important thing you look for in a label?
I have only ever been on two labels. Fresh Sound New Talent has put out three of my records, and I am forever grateful to Jordi Pujols and his band of merry men. I would not even be on that label if it were not for Loren Stillman who showed him the master of the first album, Atroefy. PJCE Records has put out two of my albums (with a third on the way). The first one, I was not involved with the label yet. I just wanted to do a live record and the label obliged. With “Mist. Moss. Home.” and the upcoming record, “Evil Twin,” it wasn’t hard to convince the label to put the record out (because I am the director).
Favorite spots to perform in Portland, Oregon?
All of them. Seriously. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to play music. I repeat this refrain to myself before playing a single note every day. Humility is just one of the many things that I learned in my studies with Peter Bernstein. We get to play music. I could pack the house at a Portland jazz venue like the 1905 playing my own brand of modern jazz, or I could play similarly high-flying music to a crowd that my bass-less trio outnumbers. In the end, I will still have access to clean water tomorrow.
I don’t have favorite spots. I just know of places that let me share music with people that want to hear it.
What country would you most like to play in?
I have done very little international performance, and that pains me. I have done some international travelling, including Ireland, Costa Rica, England, Germany, Canada, and Mexico. But I have yet to perform music in any place outside of North America.
I would love to play the Guinness Jazz Festival in Cork, Ireland, and I would love to play with Bill McHenry and Jorge Rossy in Barcelona at Jamboree. I also have a burning passion for Brazilian music, so I would like to be able to go to Brazil and just hang with the cats there to soak up as much as I can.
Plans for your band this year?
Releasing another record. The release of the record will be celebrated on my birthday, August 18th, at the Montavilla Jazz Festival. This record is markedly different than any I have done to date. The entire album is collectively and spontaneously composed by a double bass-less trio, in the mold of the Paul Motian trio. Two guitars, two saxes, and two drum sets carefully craft each tune from the ether, which is where the album gets its name “Evil Twin.” Sometimes it ventures into the unknown; oftentimes the music is melodic and relatable.
For more information, visit www.ryanmeagher.com.