Building Bridges with Jesse Ryan

— balancing art, income and the new album

Gloria Blizzard
Dec 1, 2020 · 4 min read
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Jesse Ryan — photo by Robin Sassi

“Most of the jazz musicians that I admire, are struggling,” says saxophonist Jesse Ryan. “I don’t want to live like that.”

We speak on zoom, of course, during these strange times. His thoughts around art and entrepreneurship come to the forefront.

“My wife, Kristin and I, took a big risk coming to Canada from Trinidad where we had a very comfortable life. In order to be in Toronto, it has to be worth it.”

To that end, Ryan has developed multiple income streams as a producer, arranger, composer, music educator, band leader and graphic designer, all under an umbrella company FWÉ Culture.

I tell him that the only other musician who I’ve interviewed who speaks with this approach is Joy Lapps-Lewis. “We are friends,” he laughs. Her husband, Grammy Award-winning drummer, Larnell Lewis is co-producer of Bridges, Ryan’s debut album.

Featured on it are some of Canada’s best young jazz musicians — Joanna Majoko on vocals, guitarists Sean Clarey, Lucian Gray and Andrew Marzotto, Ewen Farncombe on piano and Rhodes, Marc Rogers on bass, David Richards on drums and Nicolas Franginni Salvo on percussion.

Entrepreneurial mindset

After time at the Berkley College of Music in the United States, Ryan completed his studies at Humber College in Canada. Here he noted a template for musicians who were “successful”. He gestures making quotes in the air.

“Most had certain boxes checked: they were recording, touring, composers and band leaders and they also had a gig teaching at a college.” He does note that there are only a few examples of successful Black jazz musicians in Canada listing Oscar Peterson, Rich Brown and Larnell Lewis as examples. “Some Humber alumni have put a petition together for the Creative School to hire more Black and Indigenous faculty.”

Ryan currently teaches at the Canada Christian College. “Music and styles are evolving so fast with different influences, that the way colleges teach right now, is not the best approach. I think in the next couple years, internships and mentorships will be big things, as it used to be back in the day.”

Cultural bridges

“I grew up in Belmont, (a neighbourhood in Trinidad and Tobago’s capital of Port of Spain), with steel pan, African drumming and dance and my Hindu neighbour blasting his music.” He also grew up somewhat sheltered within the Pentecostal Christian community and experienced these same elements of his culture as if “from behind a glass wall.” “There is that colonial influence that anything that was African and folk was secular and that we shouldn’t touch it,” he says.

Zambian Offertory is an arrangement of a melody, sung by Zambian nuns who swayed to the sounds of drums during the offertory part of a Catholic mass. He’d come across the video online. “I was so excited! It was the first time I’d seen those two worlds meet. I wrote an arrangement right away,” he explains.

One of the most significant influences on Ryan’s works is an album by Puerto Rican saxophonist and composer, Miguel Zenón, Esta Plena. Plena is a style of music, dance and drumming, that uses 3 frame drums — small, medium and large. He discovered that variations of this music exist throughout the Caribbean. There are connections to Grenada, where his grandfather, calypsonian the Mighty Bomber, was born. He also found a variation of the music in Tobago, called tambrin drumming.

“It was almost as if this ancestral thing, ancestral DNA, was pulling me in.”

Ryan travelled back to Trinidad and spent a day recording the Mt. Cullane Tambrin Band who are featured throughout the album.

Soweto Kinch, jazz saxophonist and rapper from the United Kingdom is a big influence in terms of Ryan’s sound and approach. Compositional influences include the great Trinidadian trumpet player and composer Etienne Charles.

Ryan reveals a bit of his own compositional approach. “I try to use the tools that I have to convey emotion and feeling. When I am writing a song, it is never about melody and chords or just about the groove. It is about how all work together to create a feeling, a space for people to connect with the idea. There are no lyrics, so I feel some extra responsibility to be intentional about how I use the tools.”

Early Morning Solutions

Jesse Ryan admits that managing energy and motivation for so many projects can be a challenge. Did I mention that he is also the musical director of his church? Or that his wife Kristin runs a family business Mélé Cuisine, located in Trinidad for which the couple provides administration and marketing from Canada?

How does he manage to carry all of this?

To help re-set and sustain his energies, three times between December 2020 and March 2020, for a period of 1 month, he started his day at 5:30 am.

“The second time, I had 10 people join me.” With this sphere of mutual accountability and a few extra hours in the day, he felt inspired, supported and incredibly productive. He plans to do another 30 day stint soon!

In the meantime, the album project is now complete.

Bridges is an aural explosion of stellar musicianship, that incorporates Ryan’s explorations of his own cultural roots, expertise in the modern jazz idiom and elements of the sacred, embellished with joyful Trini flourishes.

Bridges drops worldwide on December 4, 2020 on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon Music, YouTube, and CD Baby.

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