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Photo by J. Barry O'Rourke


This article appeared in Coda, Issue 303, May/June 2002

Destiny, Discipline, Delight: Ali Ryerson

Some people assist their destinies the hard way: through continual tests by "fire," year upon year of trial and error until, one fine day, they land fully on their own two feet, apparently fulfilled. Others, the Happy (or perhaps even unhappy) Few are fully on their feet from the start, finding a road they walk with seeming ease. And then there's a unique third breed for whom the path--both rocky and level--is inevitable. It arrives as naturally, as seamlessly, as breathing itself. This seems to have been the Way for flute player Ali Ryerson, a woman who--as far as the world of jazz is concerned--was "to the manor born."

Destiny combined with discipline (hour upon hour of "practice," but practice that feels like the most natural part of life) =delight: the delight Ryerson's music has provided her many fans throughout a career that spans three decades. Much has been said about Ali Ryerson's father, Art, a guitarist who played with the bands of Benny Goodman and Paul Whitman, backed the Mills Brothers, and performed with everyone from Fats Waller to Charlie Parker. He also brought home such "guests" as Lou Stein, Milt Hinton, and Bucky Pizzarelli. Imagine the effect on his daughter, Ali, who started out on piano at five and took up the flute at eleven.

"It was the perfect environment to become what I've become in terms of a jazz musician. When I was growing up, my father worked in Manhattan six days a week. He was heavy into the studio scene. It's not even that I saw him every single day, but when I did, my memory is of him practicing, very methodically. This obviously made a strong impression on me. Growing up, my three older brothers [Art, Rich, and John--all professional musicians] and I had a regimen that we had to follow. Five o'clock, every day, we practiced. It didn't seem unusual, because we didn't know anything else. Practicing was ingrained, and self-discipline was ingrained. It's almost as if my value as a human being is measured by whether or not I practice. I think it's as deep as that."

Were the sessions at home that featured such famous "guests" O-honest-to-God jam sessions, or did they too involve more "practice," the musicians getting together to work stuff out?

"It was jamming," Ali Ryerson says. "It was a party. My parents would have an adult party, maybe a cocktail party. And with this group of friends it would be a jam session. We had a standup bass in the house, and a beautiful Steinway grand piano."

The Good Times that took place in the Ryerson household led, inevitably, to a family band.

"My father wrote the arrangements. My older brother Art played trombone, Rich and John were trumpet players, and my father played guitar. We performed at the World's Fair in New York. At the time I was eleven."

"A prodigy," I offered.

"No, it's just that's what I grew up doing. My upbringing groomed me for this life. I grew up in a family that was male dominated. My experience was in a family of men, basically, and musicians. That's what this business is, quite frankly. I was trained classically on piano and on the flute, but my family was mostly into jazz. I was improvising from the beginning. If my brothers had a gig, they would ask me to sit in. If there was enough bread, they would hire me. My older brothers were very supportive. And they are phenomenal musicians."


Photo by J. Barry O'Rourke
Ali Ryerson told the Hartford Courant that music, "both classical and jazz," was the "irresistible force" in her life, "a shared bond, a kind of marriage for which there is no divorce." Bach etudes remain "her favorite for toning up the chops." She studied classical performance at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Music degree. Although she finds the jazz education programs that exist today "phenomenal," she never had to "study" the art, feeling that there is no substitute for "the great advantage of being thrown into a playing situation and having to listen."

"Interaction is the foundation of what's really happening in jazz: when you throw an idea out and the other musicians react to that," Ali Ryerson says. Also important is "the sense of responsibility in terms of keeping time. That's what is missing when all that you're doing is playing along with CDs. I always encourage my private students to practice improvisation solo a lot, because you need to develop that inner sense of time, an inner sense of harmony, an inner sense of everything musical."

A natural (to the manor born!), Ryerson says, "I really learned a whole lot of tunes just going to work with my brothers--free of fake books. I learned the most important secret of jazz: I learned to play by ear. That's what we have to develop. All the theory in the world will not translate into a great solo if you don't hear stuff in your head. And that comes from playing!"

"Can you play any idea that comes into your head?"

[laughs] "I make mistakes. I may not have a new idea, a new harmonic approach or rhythmic approach fully in my consciousness yet, but if I think about it, then I will expand what I hear when I am actually improvising. And to me that is the idea of jazz education: expanding."
Several seemingly disparate strains have contributed greatly to Ali Ryerson's "practice" in music. She paid about a year's worth of dues in Las Vegas, and loved it. Saxophonist James Moody was in one of the relief bands ("the top players, the top readers in all of Vegas, playing a different show each night, five nights a week") and Ali Ryerson occupied the chair next to him, which was "kind of cool." In her early twenties, she worked with the singing team of Sandler and Young, and with entertainer Billy Fellows, spending the years between 1973 and 1977 on the road, full time. "Whether playing in a jazz band or even doing country-flavored stuff, whatever I did," she says, "I tried my best to get into that music and get the feel right. If you do it right, you can make good music. All of it was a tremendous experience."

She has worked with a host of other top performers: a list that includes Stephane Grappelli, Laurindo Almeida, Billy Taylor, Julius Baker, and Luciano Pavarotti. Last December, she gave five performances with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. "I commissioned a piece on Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas. Dave Wheeler, from Columbus, Ohio, did the arrangement and orchestration. This has been a dream of mine for many years: to play as a jazz soloist with an orchestra behind me. It was absolutely thrilling and I'm hoping to do more of that."

Ali Ryerson has also worked with a host of fine pianists: Kenny Barron, Harold Danko, Charles Loos, Diederik Wissels, Kenny Werner, and Weber Iago. She performs, now, with guitarist Joe Beck, in a duo. Of Kenny Barron, she says, "He is really the consummate professional, so flexible musically. He suits himself to each situation." She loves Kenny Werner's ability to "take things out a bit," his taste and touch (on "Windows," in the CD Portraits of Silver, he lends sprightly, subtle support to an ordinary conversation mixed with the sublime; his own solo spare but bright), yet Ryerson makes it abundantly clear that she is not pitting any one pianist against another, saying that the differences make up "the fun of it. I believe I play slightly differently with each person I work with--maybe a lot differently with various people. That's the beauty of it."

Ali Ryerson was introduced to pianist Weber Iago and percussionist Helcio Milito while she was performing in the Monterey Bay area in California. She had always loved Brazilian music but "had never played with a single Brazilian in my life. It's a whole different thing." Weber Iago wrote many and arranged most of the tunes on her CD Brasil: Quiet Devotion. "He is extremely creative. He's a force. Playing with Weber has always been a challenge. It's produced some of the most exciting music that I've done."

Photo by Will Wallace
Brasil does contain its share of quiet devotion (the title tune, by Iago, is lovely: cello-supported candlelit reverence giving way to a fine jazz veneer), but it is also highly charged. "Todos os Sentidos (All the Senses)" immediately does engage all of the senses, the entire body, then relaxes, swings, grows buoyant and bright. It features Iago's brilliant upbeat, percussive piano work, his elaborate configurations. Another Iago original, "Nao Esta Colando (I'm Not Buying It)," reminds me of the trance of watching water at a steady boil, a glistening surface, everything congealing yet remaining alert and alive. Ali Ryerson's flute prances and dances above the cauldron, with style.

Having provided two CDs as a team, Alto and Django, Ali Ryerson and Joe Beck have arrived at a partnership based on a similar melodic sense, and a strong harmonic and rhythmic "hook up." Beck's somewhat subterranean sophistication (his alto guitar made up of three pairs of strings arranged in three separate registers) is offset by Ryerson's handsome tone and full mix of moods, a seemingly disinterested or offhand approach that also remains intimate, ardent, soaring at times, spirited.

"When we record, we don't just say, 'What shall we do? Let's try this.' The tunes are already arranged, rehearsed, performed time and time again. There is definitely improvisation, but the extent to which we have arranged the tunes--as if they were little gems--that's one of the things that's different. It's a completely organic process, and also a spontaneous process."

Those tunes are small gems, chamber jazz at its best, and the range of material reveals the versatility and adaptability of the players. "Ode to Billy Joe,""Joy Spring," medleys made up of "Scarborough Fair" paired off with "Norwegian Wood,""Come Together" with "Alone Together,""Song for My Father,""When I Fall in Love," Monk's "'Round Midnight," John Lewis' "Django," Chick Corea's "Spain,""Tenderly,""O Barquinho,""Danny Boy."

Ali Ryerson's destiny has evolved naturally, "organically," with deceptive "ease," from those jam session parties she was nurtured on at home into an extended family that includes some of the finest musicians in the world. She recalls the sound of Bill Evan's piano invading the wall that separated hers from her brother's room, and concludes, "I grew up hearing a lyrical approach. I'm a melody girl. And my big love affair in life is the flute. I always wanted to be a flute player. I just knew it, early on."

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