Jazz interview with jazz guitarist, composer, educator, editor, columnist Ryan Meagher. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Ryan Meagher: – Though I have now been living in Portland, Oregon for about five years, I grew up in San Jose, California. I was not really born into a musical household, though my dad did do live sound for my uncle’s Bay Area rock band in the 1970s and 80s. The main reason I got interested in music was because I did not want to bake. At my junior high school, students could either do home economics as an elective or be in the band. I did not play any musical instruments yet, but I knew I did not want to do home ec. So I talked to the band director and she said she would let me in the band. I rented a trumpet and got to work right away. I did not pick up the guitar until later that year. I started messing around with Nirvana and Pearl Jam songs because that is what all of my friends were into.
I think I had a fair amount of natural talent for music, but I was not serious about music until my sophomore year in high school. By this time guitar was my only instrument, and I was getting really good at different musical styles. Up until this point, baseball was the only thing I really cared about. I was obsessed with baseball (and I suppose I still am). I was pretty talented as a baseball player, but undersized. So I was a bench-warmer for my junior varsity team. It’s funny … I was just talking with my wife about this story.
Due to some injuries and some movement of players, the coach for my baseball team sat me down and said, “Here’s the break you’ve been looking for Meagher. You’re starting this weekend against St. Ignatius (a powerhouse prep school we played sometimes).” I said, “I can’t play this weekend, Coach. I told you I have a jazz band trip in Los Angeles.” The coach was supremely disappointed that I chose going on the band trip over moving to the starting lineup. While I was on that band trip I randomly bought John Coltrane’s Blue Train, and my life was changed forever. There is one lick from Lee Morgan’s solo on the title track that I can point to as the defining musical moment of my life. When I heard him play that phrase coming out of the implied double-time section of his solo, tingles ran up my spine to the top of my head, hair stood up on the back of my neck, and my heart melted. I decided right then and there that I was going to be a jazz musician for the rest of my life. That lick still ruins me.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose your musical instrument?
RM: – Nirvana was really the driving force in me picking up the guitar. I have a good friend that I have been playing music with since 7th grade who got me into the culture of being a guitar player, and rock and roll, and stuff. We still get together when I am in San Jose and screw around on various instruments, just having a good time and writing music. It all started for me with Jim Trujillo after school and on weekends rotating between playing 90s alternative songs on our instruments and playing video games.
The middle school band teacher I talked about played a big role in my early musical development. She was a fearsome lady, about whom I seldom have fond memories; however, now that I have experience directing a middle school jazz band, I have a lot more sympathy for Mrs. Farmer.
My high school band director, Gus Kambeitz, was a huge influence on me, too. He pushed me musically, and gave me lots of opportunity. He and I butted heads a lot, especially sophomore and junior year, but I cannot thank him enough for the four years I got with him. He also helped me launch my college teaching career, as he hired me to teach at West Valley College in Saratoga around 4 years ago.
The teachers I had at the end of my college studies and beyond are the ones that jazz audiences like to hear about. Somewhere along the way in my studies at San Diego State University I got connected with Peter Bernstein. I was such a huge fan, and would bug him every time he made it to Southern California. I had a few lessons with him before I moved to New York in 2003. One of those lessons Peter actually told me he will never forget. In the middle of our lesson there was a mild earthquake. I am from California, so a small earthquake ain’t no thang for me… but it was Peter’s first and it scared the heck out of him. Also, the next day was the 9/11 terrorist attack, and Peter got stuck or something like that. So, I guess I scarred Peter a little bit.
I also had the chance to study with Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, and Kurt Rosenwinkel a few times. With those guys, I just called them up. I desperately wanted to be in Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, so I thought I would learn as much as I could from the guys who sat in the guitar chairs. I had positive experiences from studying from all of those guys. Cardenas and Monder really hammered home fundamentals. I am still shedding some of the stuff they gave me. Cardenas also gave me some very appropriate philosophical and aesthetical tutelage. The lessons with Rosenwinkel were not bad, but they were not typical lessons. I learned stuff from those lessons, but it would not sink in until a few years later. He is a very deep thinker.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
RM: – My sound has evolved some, but I have been strong in my sound for a very long time. This is mostly due to the influence of my uncle that I mentioned before. He is a great singer and guitar player now based in Los Angeles. He is very strong-willed and has opinions about what guitars should and should not sound like. He is also a gear guy, and this sort of influenced me to go the opposite way and sound good on whatever is in my hands. I also spent most of my sophomore year trying to sound exactly like Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I moved on to jazz, the sound of Pat Metheny’s guitar on Michael Brecker’s Tales from the Hudson is probably the biggest single influence on my guitar tone and touch. That was later adjusted by some influence from Ben Monder’s sound. I listened to Wes Montgomery and learned some of his vocabulary, but I never had a great archtop guitar, so I never went for that pure acoustic jazz sound.
Jim Hall, Bill Frisell, and John Scofield are probably my three biggest influences after the guys I mentioned. Every once in a while someone will comment that my sound reminds them of Peter Bernstein or Kurt Rosenwinkel. I guess that is bound to happen since I have spent so much time with their music and studied with them. I think of the former as a compliment for which I am not worthy because I beieve Peter’s sound comes from his honesty as a human being. He is still such a hero of mine because of his vicious musicianship, but also his humanity.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
RM: – Shameless plug for my friend and colleague, John Nastos, here in Portland, Oregon. He is a tremendous saxophone player and he developed what I believe to be the best possible metronome app for musicians. Metronomics is the most versatile and programmable metronome I have seen, and it does everything we need as musicians to work on our time. I can spend hours coming up with games or exercises to work on time with his app. The main thing I tell students when working with a metronome is that the metronome is not their to provide you time. It is there for you to check your own time.
When I first moved to New York, I spent a lot of practice time mimicking the feel and phrasing of masters. I would learn a solo from Miles, or Sonny, or Jim Hall, and I would try to get my notes to be in the exact right spot compared to theirs. I would record myself playing along with them and compare. I would do it so much that I learned what it felt like. You have to remember… I am a white dude from the suburbs. I did not grow up in Jazzland. The swing feel did not waft around my home as a child. I had to learn the accent of the language through immersion.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
RM: – The ones I write.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
I was much more excited about 2016 than I was 2017. I think 2018 is looking pretty good! Ok, in 2017 I liked: Randy Porter with Nancy King – Porter Plays Porter; Alan Ferber – Jigsaw; Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Incidentals; Peter Bernstein – Signs LIVE!; George Colligan – More Powerful; DR. MiNT – Voices In the Void; Ryan Keberle & Catharsis – Find the Common, Shine a Light; Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Paint; Wes Montgomery – Smokin’ In Seattle
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
RM: – I do not contend that there is a right answer to this. I am certainly glad there is music based purely on intellect. I am glad that people who do not know anything about music theory can dance to something that makes them feel like dancing. The music I am most concerned with in my life is something that offers both intellectual stimulation while providing something that helps me form an emotional response to the artist and/or my community.
My wife is not a musician. She is a flight attendant, and anything she knows about the ins-and-outs of music is mostly from me. She does not care for jazz in the way most readers will. However, since she has learned some about the music, and has been to countless live performances of the music, she can now enjoy a connection to the music because of the human connection. Not the fact that I made some hip chord substitution on a tune that was popular when her grandmother was her age.
At the same time, I cannot hang with her pop country thing. I have no attachment to Luke Bryan, his music, or the culture that surrounds that music. My wife and I have to find common ground. Basically, I do not listen to Steve Coleman when she is around, and she tries not to listen to Jason Aldean when I am around. But if we are being honest, we listen to more pop country than avant-garde jazz!
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
RM: – The worst gig I ever had was at the Garage in New York about 5 years ago. I was playing trio with Sam Trapchak (bass) and Mark Ferber (drums) for next-to-nothing, in terms of compensation. Near the end of the first set I was starting to get in my own head about my performance, and that is never a good thing. If that were not enough, some loud, drunk guy basically starts heckling and pestering us. So, I am struggling with the music and then this guy starts banging on the brass rail at the front of the stage with his wedding ring and yelling inappropriate things. It was like, “Buddy… I’m not hanging on ‘Just In Time’ at 340 bpm right now. I don’t need this.” It only got worse from there.
As far as positive memories, I recently had a couple performances with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and Edna Vazquez that warmed my heart. One of them was at the Old Church in Portland during the PDX Jazz Festival. The music went really well, I played well, the audience was engaged the entire time, and one of my musical heroes, Jenny Conlee from the Decemberists, was in attendance and had nice things to say.
JBN.S: – Which collaborations have been the most important experiences for you?
RM: – All of them. Music, as I understand it, is a social experience. Playing Rage Against the Machine tunes in my San Jose garage as a teenager with Jim Trujillo means to me as much as performing duo with Cuong Vu last summer, or John Clayton a couple years ago. Doing some random jazz festival with my high school band in Fresno, California in 1997 means the same to me as recording with Bill McHenry and George Colligan last April. At this point, I am just happy that I get the privilege of performing, teaching, talking about, writing about, and thinking about music as a means to make a living. I will make the most out of any experience playing music.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
RM: – We don’t. That has never happened and it never will. Think of the most popular rock/pop artists from the past thirty years. Did Bruno Mars become a household name playing the standards of his tradition? While she has sang some standard songs, Lady Gaga is not doing the Super Bowl halftime show singing a whole set of classic hits from the Motown era, disco era, and 80s. Do not get me wrong… I think celebrating our tradition in jazz is necessary. But the way jazz is currently talked about and understood makes it intentionally unpopular and uninteresting for younger audiences. For a tradition that purports to value imagination and innovation the jazz media, its listeners, and even its younger fans spend an awful lot of time talking about the good ole days.
Jazz, as a whole, needs to focus on the present and the future, but not forget about the past. Otherwise, we are going to be museum music sooner than later. Actually, that has already happened to some extent. I am not sure there is a fix for it unless all of jazz focuses on the now.
Also, I think “half a century” is actually not old enough! Mike Moreno has been doing some interesting tune research through his social media accounts that readers should check out. “Stella by Starlight” is a tune students are still learning and it is the theme song from a movie that came out in 1944. My dad was born in 1953. My strongest connection to that song is an instrumental version from a live album in 1964 (Miles Davis – My Funny Valentine), an album I did not hear until 2000. How is my 15-year-old guitar student supposed to deal with “Stella?” in 2018? A 15-year-old student of jazz in 1944, learning a popular tune from a movie that year would now be 89-years-old. I am not saying students should not be learning “Stella.” But how relevant is “Stella” to my 15-year-old student?
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
RM: – I sort of touched on it previously, but music for me is just an extension of who I am. I am just trying to wake up every day being the best person I can. Recently, I have been interpreting that literally to mean, “Make someone else’s life better today.” If I can do that through musical performance, teaching music, enjoying music of others, then that is part of that mission in some small part. But, we can all do better. We can all make someone else’s life better today in some way. We could practice honing our craft as a musician so that others may feel an emotive response to their community. Or we could feed someone in need of food. Music is hard. Life is hard. I would like to help make it less hard for at least one person every day.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
RM: – I do not have fears or anxieties. Mostly, because I do not have time for that shit. If something pops up like that, I acknowledge it, and brush it aside. “Ryan, you suck at rhythm changes. Why aren’t you shedding right now,” the voice in my heads screams. I answer, “Well, that’s true. But that negative energy isn’t going to help me any. Thanks for the reminder though, inner voice. I’ll shed later when I have 15 spare minutes. Fuck off, now.”
As for what the future holds… fame and fortune… obviously.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
RM: – This is completely antithetical to what I said earlier about jazz living in the past… but I would like to see a return to physical media for consumption. I miss the days when I would save up what little money I had, go to a physical building that sold music, pour through the bins, talk to some random fellow shopper about the music, walk some selections up to the counter where a know-it-all pierced twenty-something looked at me weird, and I would walk out with a bag of adventure and exploration. Now, I have access to everything ever after a few clacks of the keyboard and clicks of a mouse. I am listening to Buddy Guy right now as I respond to these questions. It is on Spotify. I am complicit in this scourge, believe that.
I believe that legislation is the only way to fix the problems with media consumption. It will never happen because our government is completely failing in every sense, but legislation with teeth is the only way to fix piracy, streaming services that pay artists almost nothing, and the devaluation of media across discipline. No artists are doing well and that is not sustainable.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
RM: – I have a new album out right now on Fresh Sound New Talent called Lost Days. I have another being released on PJCE Records later this year called Evil Twin. It is an album comprised of collectively and spontaneously composed pieces by a double bass-less trio: two guitars, two saxophones, and two drummers. After that, I hope to do some more large ensemble writing, finishing my chamber-jazz suite called Bloomsday: A Jazz Portrait of Joyce’s Dublin, and as always, sheddin’ the changes of tunes from the jazz tradition.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
RM: – Yes. However, I’m not an expert in folk or world music so I shall refrain from answering because I do not want to sound idiotic. I like listening to Indian classical music, and traditional Irish music. I just do not have much to say about it.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
RM: – There is so much! Sometimes I get overwhelmed with all of the new music being produced. I have been really digging the Decemberists new album, I’ll Be Your Girl. I usually like to listen to the music of my friends and colleagues. David Ake, a former professor of mine, just released a new record called Humanities on Posi-tone Records that is amazing. I helped produce George Colligan’s upcoming record called Other Barry that will be out later this year that has some really interesting, difficult music. B.B. King has been in regular rotation recently, just because I love his sound so damn much. I have been going back through all of the hip-hop I used to listen to in the late 90s and early 00s like Aceyalone, Dr. Octagon, Tribe Called Quest, the Grouch, etc. I always love listening to 90s alternative rock.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
RM: – I would choose New York in 1957. Not only is some of the jazz music from that year some of the best music ever recorded, but Willie Mays was also in vintage form at the Polo Grounds (and it was the Giants and Dodgers last year in New York!). But just imagine being able to see Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and so many others on a nightly basis. I would go to the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, or Yankee Stadium every day, and go to a different jazz club every night.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
RM: – My question is for the readers. What would be the single biggest factor in you choosing to listen to a new jazz record?
JBN.S – SS: – Thank you for answers. About this article you can read the near future in your web site on the head: New Albums Released in 2018 Contain too Much Rubbish!! And in general it is necessary that the sound recordings of the organization do not release everything that the musicians are ordering.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan