Ali Ryerson’s Luminous Flute Illuminates Her Musical "Dark Side"

Apr 23, 2014

Ryerson is very much at home with her giant step into contemporary turf.

“We’ve switched over to the dark side for real now.” No, that’s not an ominous utterance from Dick Cheney. It’s the celebrated flutist Ali Ryerson joking on the phone when discussing her touring quintet’s contemporary, plugged-in sound that marks a giant switch for her from the modern mainstream palette that has long been a hallmark of her acclaimed artistry.

Have no fear, however, of this particular musical dark side with Ryerson and her collaborators as your guide. Ryerson and her all-star quintet will demonstrate their plugged-in expressiveness at 8:30 pm on Friday, April 25, at The Side Door Jazz Club as they celebrate the music from her groundbreaking, electrified release, Con Brio!

Energized with synthesizer, electric keyboard, electric bass, and guitar, Ryerson’s portal into the “dark side” actually opens up a beautiful, light-filled, textured world, one whose electric edge is illuminated with a fusion of sweetness and light that also swings.

Ryerson is especially delighted, she said, with her simpatico collaborators, including the noted arranger/keyboardist Pete Levin, a groundbreaking pioneer of the Moog synthesizer. A kingpin of keyboards, both electric and acoustic, Levin is celebrated for his 15-year association with the innovative composer/arranger/bandleader Gil Evans, and eight-year alliance with the under-appreciated genius Jimmy Giuffre.

A skilled sonic tailor who can fashion stylish sounds from the finest funk-filled and soulful threads to silken synth textures, Levin wrote the distinctive charts for Con Brio! and co-produced the acclaimed album with Ryerson, a long-time friend. 

Ali Ryerson and her quintet.
Credit Ali Ryerson

Also adding to the quintet’s stellar sound is the versatility of its other bandmates: guitarist/composer Mike DeMicco, long associated with Connecticut’s Brubeck Brothers’ genre-bending band; bassist Mark Egan, a member of the original rhythm section for the jazz/rock and beyond ventures of the Pat Metheny Group; and drummer Karl Latham, who’s fluent in all genres from straight-ahead and avant-garde to rock and Latin.

Ryerson, who lives in a cozy Candlewood Lake-side home in Brookfield, is also very much at home with her giant step into contemporary turf. It’s a move she made without compromising her artistic credo or her performance style, which has always been rooted in con brio, a musical term meaning “with vigor.” And in other configurations, as with her classic duo collaborations with guitarist Joe Carter, she still grooves in the modern mainstream, creating fresh, new ways to play everything from venerable ballads to ebullient Brazilian jazz.

For Ryerson, being plugged in does not mean being tuned out of the musical verities that she has embodied in her distinguished career. Her achievements embrace a host of acclaimed recordings under her own name, including her most recent CD, Game Changer. A bold, groundbreaking, all-flute, big band adventure (16 flutes plus rhythm), the release has been basking in lots of radio play, and much warm media attention.

More than likely, Ryerson is the only flutist in the world who has played Carnegie Hall with the legendary French violinist Stephane Grappelli. Because of her classical training, she has also backed operatic tenor titan Luciano Pavarotti. 

Ali Ryerson.
Credit Ali Ryerson

Versatility is certainly nothing new for Ryerson, as shown by her thick resume that includes jazz performances around the world, and various symphonic and chamber music gigs, beginning in her undergraduate days at The Hartt School when she was playing baroque trio gigs.

A one-woman industry, Ryerson has taught around the world, and recorded with such jazz luminaries as Kenny Barron, Billy Taylor, and Art Farmer. She has played alongside Latin great Laurindo Almeida, and classical flute master Julius Baker (one of her  classical mentors), and at international jazz fests from the Guinness Jazz Festival in Ireland to the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. 

What doesn’t get unplugged in Ryerson's contemporary quintet format are such highly charged acoustic values as her melodic inventiveness; architectural sense of form and balance; warm, full-bodied tone (on both of her prime instruments C-flute and alto flute); and her signature fluid lines that are both sensuous and supple. Above all, she displays a natural ease and amazing grace in whatever groove she’s playing in, whether it’s bop, blues, or bossa.

It’s difficult for five first-call musicians to synchronize their schedules to set up a tour. Ryerson is especially happy to have arranged this quick jaunt from April 24 through April 27 through the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The tour concludes in Ridgefield at 6:30 pm on Sunday, April 27, at Sarah’s Wine Bar at Bernard’s Restaurant, 20 West Lane (Route 35). Tickets: $22.00. Information: (203) 438-8282.    

"The thing that is cool about this particular tour," Ryerson said from her winter home in St. Augustine, Florida, "is that every single room we play is a jazz room. It’s not like playing in a bar where they never hear jazz."

Ryerson said this gig marks the first time she and her quintet are playing in the area of Old Lyme, near Long Island Sound. "I’m really excited to be playing there," she said. "It will give some of my friends in the area a chance to hear the quintet, and its really hip arrangements, and original tunes in our repertoire." While she hasn't played at The Side Door before, Ryerson was there for a friend's performance. "I have been there when my friend Joyce DiCamillo, the pianist, was playing there with her trio," she said. "It was a killer. What a boon for Connecticut to get a jazz room like that. They’re really doing it right."

Ryerson’s Con Brio!-inspired quintet plays at 8:30 pm on Friday, April 25, at The Side Door Jazz Club, 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $25.00. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

Side Door Jazz frequently presents premiere Connecticut artists like Ryerson. The shoreline jazz harbor continues that policy with Hartford’s celebrated Curtis Brothers, pianist Zaccai and bassist Luques, who perform at 8:30 pm on Saturday, April 26. Players like the Curtis Brothers -- Hartford favorites since their early days as child prodigies -- have put the state capital on the national music map as a capital city for jazz. Tickets: $30.00.

Oliver Lake.
Credit Andy Newcombe / Creative Commons

The Great Lake’s Superior Band

Oliver Lake, cutting-edge jazz’s Man for All Seasons, leads his 17-piece Big Band -- including the Hartford-born, trumpet wizard Josh Evans -- at 8:00 pm on Saturday, April 26, at Wesleyan University’s Crowell Concert Hall on the Middletown campus.

Lake, a composer, arranger, poet, bandleader, and saxophonist, has an encyclopedic resume packed with accomplishments as an innovative force. It includes his role as co-founder of the venerable World Saxophone Quartet, and the historic, multi-disciplinary St. Louis collective, the Black Artists Group, famously known by its acronym, BAG.

An artist who believes that all genre boundaries are  meant to be crossed, Lake loves to navigate through new wave movements. Among many diverse accomplishments, he has composed chamber works for the FLUX String Quartet, collaborated with choreographer Ronald K. Brown, shared the stage with Mos Def, and arranged for Bjork, Lou Reed and A Tribe Called Quest. While his charts are open-ended and designed to launch explorations in time and space, Lake appreciates earlier imaginative worlds created by convention-defying artists ranging from Duke Ellington to Sun Ra.

The Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra, directed by Jay Hoggard, the vibraphonist and adjunct professor of music, opens the concert with a performance of classic jazz compositions. Tickets: $20.00, general public; $18.00, senior citizens, faculty, staff, alumni, non-Wesleyan students; $6.00, Wesleyan students. Information: (860) 685-3355.

The Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra, under Hoggard’s direction, and the Wesleyan Jazz Ensemble, directed by Noah Baerman, the pianist and ensemble coach, perform in an admission-free concert beginning at 8:00 pm on Friday, April 25, at Crowell Concert Hall.

Rudy Royston.
Credit rudyroyston.com

Royston Rules Firehouse 12

Although never merely roistering for roistering’s sake, Rudy Royston, the power percussionist, brings a sense of celebration to his playing whether happily soloing, joyfully propelling a flag-waving burner, or gladly adding splashes of color and nuance to a ballad.

Celebrating his new release with his quintet, a CD called 303 on Greenleaf Music, the drummer/composer returns to New Haven's Firehouse 12 at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, April 25. It marks his first time there as a leader at the cutting-edge performance and recording center at 45 Crown Street. Royston, who has performed with such luminaries as Bill Frisell and Dave Douglas, is joined by Jon Irabagon, saxophone; Nadje Noordhuis, trumpet; Nir Felder, piano, and Yasushi Nakamura, bass. Tickets: $18.00, first set; $12.00, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Laroo/Byrd Roost in New Jazz Nest

226 Jazz in Windsor.
Credit Pat Fahy

Dutch-born trumpeter Saskia Laroo and pianist/singer Warren Byrd, a globe-trotting duo and longtime Hartford favorites, bring their wide-ranging, hard-swinging brand of jazz at 7:00 pm on Saturday, April 26, to the new, cozy jazz club 226 Jazz at 226 Broad Street in Windsor.

The newest venue on the area scene is also a coffee bar with a commitment to visual arts, mixing jazz, java, artful images and intimacy as key elements of its just emerging persona. Admission: $15.00. Information: 226jazz.org226jazz@gmail.com and (860) 219-1947.

Notes of a Native Son

Pianist Emery Austin Smith, one of Hartford’s grand jazz patriarchs, performs at 3:00 pm on Sunday, April 27, as the season’s grand finale for the Hartford Public Library’s enormously popular free Baby Grand Jazz Series.

A setting for jazz at the Hartford Public Library.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Born and raised in Hartford, Smith, a product of the city’s fertile post-World War II jazz scene, played with and learned from such early Hartford jazz masters as Harold Holt and Percy Nelson.    

Smith loves playing to capacity crowds of longtime fans and new friends at the library, a Hartford institution that the insatiable autodidact has appreciated since he was an inquisitive youth. Bebop, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk set his imagination on fire some six decades ago and, for the irrepressible octogenarian pianist, it’s still burning. His annual piano flights in the atrium at the downtown library routinely draw record-breaking turnouts. Information: (860) 695-6295.

Slam Dunk Jazz Night    

It might not quite rise to the cutthroat competition of the NCAA’s Final Four,  but four top-seeded collegiate jazz bands and their celebrated coaches, will, no doubt,  present their A-game as they play in what the Jazz Mondays series is billing as "College Showcase" at 8:00 pm on Monday, April 28, at Black-eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street in Hartford.

Western Connecticut State University’s fast-breaking crew, under the watchful eye of the great saxophonist and assistant professor Jimmy Greene, take the floor at 8:00 pm, followed by UConn’s crackerjack jazz team led by the renowned pianist/educator Earl MacDonald, associate professor of music and director of jazz studies.

The noted trombonist, highly touted jazz strategist and savvy Hartt School educator Steve Davis leads his varsity squad from Hartt’s Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford. The fourth and final band is Boston’s Berklee College of Music ensemble led by percussionist Neal Smith, associate professor of music. Presented by Hartford’s Charter Oak Cultural Center, the Big Four showdown is an admission-free event. Information: charteroakcenter.org.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Other Notes 

Vocalist Jane Monheit, a Connecticut favorite since the earliest days of her career, once again brings her red-hot flair for torch song balladry to the Nutmeg state as she performs at 8:00 pm on Saturday, April 26, at Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, Norfolk. Tickets: $45.00/$65.00. Information: (866) 666-6306.

"John Brighenti and Friends" features veteran pianist John Brighenti with his protégé, the rising, young singer Erin O’Luanaigh, at 6:00 pm on Thursday, April 24, for Jazz Night at Casa Mia on the Green, Rocky Hill. Admission: free. Information: (860) 563-7000.

Simply Swing, the ten-piece, Mom and Pop swing band run by drummer/musical director Joe LaRosa and his wife, vocalist Vivian LaRosa, performs at 6:00 pm on Thursday, April 24, at Connecticut Lupus Foundation’s Mission Possible benefit at Maneeley’s Banquet Hall in South Windsor. Information: simplyswingmusic.com. The dance band swings into action again at The 2014 Farmington Bank Community Concert Series at 2:00 pm on Sunday, April 27, at Newington Town Hall. Admission: free.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments left below are also most welcome.