Thursday, February 14, 2008
After languishing on the sidelines for much of jazz’s history, the flute has floated gracefully into the spotlight, contending with the brassy trumpets and saxophones successfully.
Ali Ryerson is among the half-dozen players most responsible for elevating the instrument in recent decades, turning it into a respectable vehicle for jazz improvisation. With her translucent, blue-flame tone, compelling sense of swing, and intriguing harmonic choices, she has held her own with jazz legends such as pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Roy Haynes and trumpeter Red Rodney.
A regular presence on the Peninsula for two decades, Ryerson returns for a weekend gig at the Hyatt, where she’ll be accompanied by pianist Ken Cook, bassist Nat Johnson and drummer David Morwood (with Biff Smith taking over the piano chair on Saturday).
One sign of the flute’s rise is Ryerson’s regularly ringing telephone. She receives a steady flow of calls seeking her out as a guest artist for recordings, and featured soloist on big band dates.
“The flute has gained visibility,” Ryerson says from her home in Connecticut. “It’s still not the garden variety jazz instrument. But look at these big band things where I’m asked to be the soloist. It’s something that’s happening a lot – the fact that I’m starting to be the guest hired by other instrumentalists. Those two things point toward the idea that maybe the flute is coming to the fore. I’m certainly doing everything I can toward that end.”
Ryerson has long been a highly visible presence locally, first visiting the region in the mid-’80s, when she joined New York Philharmonic flutist Julius Bake conducting master classes at Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley. She even settled in the area in the early ’90s, serving for a season as the Monterey Symphony’s principal flutist.
Even when she moved back to the East Coast, she maintained strong ties to the region, performing often at the Monterey Jazz Festival and working as an Elderhostel instructor at Hidden Valley Music Seminars, teaching seminars on the festival’s featured artists. So Ryerson’s national visibility won’t come as a surprise to Peninsula residents already familiar with her stellar musicianship.
Still, in many ways, her success flies in the face of the flute’s perennial position as a sideline instrument. The vast majority of jazz flutists double on the instrument, focusing most of their time on the saxophone. While Wayman Carver brought the flute into Chick Webb’s popular swing orchestra in the ’30s, it wasn’t until the ’50s that the instrument gained popularity through the work of Buddy Collette, Bud Shank and Frank Wess (whom Ryerson has worked with in the band Flutology).
Herbie Mann built a highly successful career with his Latin jazz flute work, but the instrument has been most thoroughly explored in avant garde settings, with players like Eric Dolphy, Price Lasha and Roland Kirk paving the way for James Newton, a brilliant improviser who now spends much of his time teaching and composing. In an interesting twist, Ryerson believes that the mainstreaming of Latin jazz has played a key role in leveling the playing field for the flute.
“The Latin music definitely helps,” Ryerson says. “It fits the music so well. In Brazilian and Cuban music, it’s a part of the tradition, it’s the opposite of jazz here. So as jazz players get hip to those styles and those cultures, all of a sudden there’s a great place for flute in the music. It all goes back to when Dizzy Gillespie started integrating Cuban music with jazz, that’s when that whole movement started happening.”
ALI RYERSON Performs 7pm Friday And Saturday, Feb. 15-16, At Fireplace Lounge, Hyatt Regency Monterey, 1 Old Golf Course Rd., Monterey. Free. 372-1234.