By OWEN MCNALLY, Special To The Courant
The Hartford Courant
January 5, 2014
Ali Ryerson, a celebrated, Connecticut-based practitioner and crusading champion of the jazz flute, may have finally delivered a knockout blow in her mission to gain full equality for her instrument thanks to her new, cool, flute-centric album, "Game Changer."
Ryerson has created an unlikely seeming, unorthodox, even risky orchestral matchup of 16 jazz flutes and a rhythm section. Risky or not, "Game Changer" has been raking in rave reviews. It has been hailed as a virtual Magna Carta for the jazz flute, a game changer for an instrument that has traditionally played second fiddle to jazz saxophones, trumpets and trombones in a big band context.
"Game Changer," Ryerson's brainchild which took 11 years to be born, enjoyed six weeks in the Top Ten of JazzWeek's charts for national jazz radio air play. The mega jazz flute band's debut recording was even submitted for consideration for a Grammy nomination in "The Large Jazz Ensemble" category. Although a Grammy nomination was beyond its grasp, the album represents a giant step towards establishing full recognition for the flute in the jazz world, even in the unlikely seeming orchestral format.
Even Ryerson herself, a lifetime advocate of the flute, was aware that her prized venture involved risk.
"We didn't know if people were going to hate it. Just about everybody that I ever talked to about this project would say, whenever I'd mention a jazz flute big band, 'What's that?' " Ryerson says by phone from her lakeside home in Brookfield.
Even one skeptic, who later became a devout convert and valued collaborator, recalled initially thinking to himself that Ryerson's grandiose flute flotilla would never float.
The inspiration for forming a jazz flute big band first popped into Ryerson's head after she heard a litany of exasperating stories from aspiring young jazz flutists about how they had encountered rejection in the jazz world, simply because they played flute.
Hoping to elevate the status of the instrument, Ryerson established master classes in 2002 at Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley, Calif., and began commissioning top arranger friends to write charts specifically tailored for her emerging jazz flute big band. Over the years, she transformed her concept into a legitimate big band that grooves with swing, textures, tonal colors and precision on primarily canonical works by jazz titans ranging from John Coltrane to Wayne Shorter.
"I found in my travels," the globe-trotting flute/maestro says, "that aspiring jazz flutists, especially college students were not really welcomed in their school's jazz ensembles. With big bands, the instrumentation includes flute only as a double (usually a saxophonist doubling on flute as a second instrument), with no dedicated flute chair," she says.
So, she reasoned, why not strike a blow for liberty by creating an all-flute jazz orchestra, a hip, bona fide big band that swings with the real feeling of jazz.
Although colleagues warned her that this was an impossible dream, she began rehearsing her newly minted, flute band charts, assiduously nurturing her cause. During her five-year stint as chair of the influential National Flute Association, the popular, universally respected musician spread the word of her ambitious project throughout the flute community.
Raising A Jazz Flute Band
Her jazz flute band has evolved over the years into its present championship form through a series of concert performances, competitions, working sessions at schools and appearances at various flute events. Finally, after her long labor of love, her mammoth flute salute has culminated with the release of "Game Changer" on Capri Records, an independent label known for its high quality catalog.
Part of Ryerson's mission, she says, is to raise public consciousness about the breadth and depth of the flute as a deeply expressive jazz instrument on an equal footing with the more vastly recognized jazz horns and keyboards.
"I really want to explore the sound and texture of the flute family, which would include C-flute, alto flute, bass flute and contra bass flute," says Ryerson, a classically trained flutist and cum laude 1979 graduate of The Hartt School at the University of Hartford.
While an undergraduate at Hartt, Ryerson built up a loyal Hartford fan base by playing jazz in such then hot nightspots as Mad Murphy's Shenanigans and The 880 Club.
Jazz was as natural to her as classical music since she grew up in a jazz-filled, tightly-knit household. Her father was the celebrated jazz guitarist, Arthur Ryerson. And the Ryerson residence often rocked with living room jam sessions featuring such famous family pals as guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Young Ali also had three older, musically gifted brothers, supportive role models who introduced her to the world of Bill Evans and Miles Davis, profound formative influences on her lyrical, melodic voice on flute.
In her Hartford years, Ryerson subbed in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the Connecticut Opera Company. Leading her own popular baroque trio, she played at elite downtown restaurants, at chic West End soirees in stately mansions and at upscale weddings and parties.
Hartford was a happy foreshadowing of a career that has produced a distinguished discography and acclaim as both a performer and educator. Her diverse resume ranges from playing at Carnegie Hall with the legendary French violinist Stephane Grappelli to performing with operatic tenor titan Luciano Pavarotti, as well as appearances at top jazz festivals around the world, plus dates with symphonic and chamber music groups.
For "Game Changer," her latest bold step, Ryerson commissioned top jazz arrangers, including, among others, Mike Wofford, Michael Abene and Bill Cunliffe. Her crack legion of jazz flutists, which she assembled on a shoestring budget, features such special guest soloists as the legendary Hubert Laws, Holly Hofmann and Nestor Torres, plus her friend, fellow flutist and Connecticut native Jamie Baum. Her all-star rhythm section, which lays down perfectly symmetric, dynamic accompaniment, features pianist/arranger Mark Levine, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Akira Tana.
With a euphoric sense of mission accomplished with the release of "Game Changer," Ryerson reflects: "I've spent a lifetime on how to make the flute a great jazz instrument, how to use the elements of tone and all the variations of tone, and the articulation and the dynamics and texture of the flute. And with the jazz flute big band there is strength in numbers. So when you put together a whole jazz flute big band playing, it's like POW! The strength of the jazz flute is just multiplied. And that to me is what could make the CD a game changer for the instrument," she says.
Still much an evangelist, Ryerson hopes her band will eventually play in jazz festivals in Connecticut and New York, spreading her gospel of flute power. And now that the once odd seeming concept of a big, swinging flute jazz band has proven itself, she says, there might well be a sequel to "Game Changer."
A well-deserved encore, it's sure to be another blow for full-fledged flute freedom.
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