Ali Ryerson

ryersonBy Scott MacClelland

ALI RYERSON comes our way a couple of times every year. The well-known and highly admired jazz flutist spends half of each year on the road worldwide. Air flights and hotel rooms return her to a lifetime’s worth of family friends and colleagues. The other six months she spends at home in Connecticut or hiding out in her Florida beach bungalow in St. Augustine. “I’m pretty good with travel but I’m actually a homebody.”

This Thursday Ali and the members of her quartet will perform at Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley right in the middle of her annual jazz flute masterclass there. Then, starting on June 27, she’ll join the faculty of CSU Summer Arts for a course titled The Complete 21st Century Flutist. Her flute colleagues read like a who’s who of the instrument: Carol Wincenc, John Barcellona, Ian Clarke, Robert Dick, Rena Urso-Trapani and Wendy Caldwell. The course will culminate in a concert, An Evening of Flute, in the World Theater on the CSUMB campus in Seaside. Then she’s back at Hidden Valley for the Northern California Flute Camp and, on July 10, a concert there with pianist Charles Loos.

Ryerson came by her talents naturally. Her father, Art, was a jazz guitarist who began his career with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra (that gave the premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, among others) and became one of the first-call studio players in New York for five decades, recording with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Elvis Presley. “The home environment was jazz. I was listening to Miles and Bill Evans from an early age.” Ali’s siblings, three older brothers, all took up instruments but only she went on to become an international touring and recording artist, with performances ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Blue Note to festival appearances worldwide. “I started improvising before I was a teen.”

“I compose too, in both [jazz and classical] genres,” she says. “Ideally, I like to compose like a jazz player and improvise like a composer. There are so many similarities.” She elaborates, “Better improvisers have a bigger picture. Building a good solo you develop an innate sense of themes and how to develop them. It’s exactly the same process in composing.”

As anyone who has heard her play will attest, Ryerson’s improvisational skills are extraordinary. “When I practice, I do so alone, a cappella. I’ve trained myself to be able to hear and get ideas that way. It’s my kind of inspiration. It helps in both composing and improvising,” she says. “It allows me to be less dependent on outside sources. That way when I play with a rhythm section, I’m able to bring something new and different to the table.”

In high school, Ryerson played classical and jazz, but, “at 15 and 16 I was listening to Donovan, Laura Nyro, Crosby, Stills and Nash. Just thinking about them takes me back to my childhood, those magical moments.”

Though her siblings attended the Berklee School, she never actually studied jazz. “I’d been on my own, on the road for five years, when I went back to school at 25.” Around 1977, she enrolled at the Hartt School, in Hartford, from which she graduated. In 1979 she took a master class with Julius Baker. “When I heard him for the first time he just blew me away. I’d never heard a flute player like that in my life. He played in such an effortless manner. His tone was the ideal sound, and he was so musical.” Baker (1915-2003) played principal flute with the Pittsburg Symphony, Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic. He gave many masterclasses at Hidden Valley, including some with Ryerson.

“When he was teaching at Curtis a lot of the players were studying with the opera singers and learning how to produce a sound, how to sing through your flute, to use the instrument like a voice.” Baker also gave another prescient piece of advice: practice slowly. “He said that way if you never practice a mistake you’ll never make a mistake. I never heard him not play perfectly.”

“I decided to become an orchestral player,” she said. So at Hartt she studied with John Wion.

But four-plus decades ago jazz won out. Ryerson consistently ranks among the top flutists in the Downbeat Jazz, has released nearly two-dozen albums as leader or co-leader on major jazz labels such as Concord Records, DMP, Capri, and jazz producer Bob Thiele’s Red Baron. She has recorded and performed with such jazz greats as Red Rodney, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Kenny Barron, Frank Wess, Hubert Laws, Wynton Marsalis, Stéphane Grappelli, and Joe Beck, as well as classical artists like Baker and harpsichordist Anthony Newman. She has also appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

She was music director of the Hudson River Regional Jazz Festival from 2001 to ’04, Jazz chair of the National Flute Association, 2005 to’10), founder of the NFA Jazz Flute Big Band and remains chair of NFA’s Low Flutes section. She has written a number articles Ali with Wyntonfor Downbeat Magazine and other periodicals, and, in 2009, published an acclaimed Jazz Flute Practice Method book. Her ideas have been incorporated in refinements to her instrument. She is flute professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, has often served as visiting artist-in-residence and does summer masterclasses here and abroad. She even does an online masterclass through LessonFace.

It was at a gig in New Mexico that trumpet master Wynton Marsalis, who’d left his horn elsewhere, offered to accompany Ryerson at the keyboard. The bassist was Carlos Henrique. Afterward, Marsalis invited Ryerson to play with the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra the following night in Santa Fe.

Alfred Harris

Harris

By Scott MacClelland

YOU WILL PROBABLY never hear Alfred Harris sing. He doesn’t give public performances. But that doesn’t diminish his passion to sing and make CD recordings.

Harris began singing as a boy soprano in church in his native London. When his voice broke he became a tenor with an operatic bent. Now, as determined as ever, he sings for his own pleasure, with the keyboard accompaniment of Stephen Tosh and, on occasion, Lucy Faridany, both well known in Monterey County. At 83, his voice shows its age, and some of the tracks might have benefited with a fresher start. Yet, despite the rough edges it is easy to tell that Harris knows what he’s aiming for, musically and expressively—even theatrically with broken-hearted sobs as can be heard in the famous recitative “Deeper and deeper still thy goodness child” and its ensuing aria “Waft her angels through the sky” from Handel’s last oratorio, Jephtha. (The title character, Jephtha, has rashly promised the Lord that he will sacrifice the first person he sees after being victorious in battle. That sacrificial lamb proves to be his daughter.)

Harris’ primary focus is discovering and recording songs and arias that have not been heard since the turn of the 20th century, by the Italians Alfredo Catalani, Pietro Mascagni, a collection titled “Italian Verismo Opera” and more. Most recently, he finished a fascinating new CD titled “Il giovane Verdi” (The Young Verdi) that explores extremely rare repertoire.

He gets this Italian arcana from a website called Petrucci. Except for the arias, “the Catalani are unique,” with “quite a few previously unrecorded Mascagni” as well. He also acquires “stuff” from Cesare Orselli in Florence and Hans Reinders in Utrecht. “We’re not pros,” he says of his recording sessions. “We’re trying to have fun,” speaking more of himself than the aforementioned pianists who otherwise are sought-after pros.

Harris was born in 1933 in West London to Cecil and American-born Alta, who had met in Darjeeling in the late ‘20s. His father was in charge of the electrification of Indian railroads and his mother was a superintendent of Methodist schools. Alfred was the younger brother of Lenore, born in India. Stuck in the depression and with war in the air, “Father decided to return to India.” That was in 1938.

Now composing a memoir for his sons, Alfred relates vivid details of a five-year-old’s ‘passage to India,’ through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal—and riding a camel that spat at him— landing in Madras, now Chennai. Only a few short weeks later, Cecil fell ill and the family sailed for London then took the quicker train ride from Marseilles to Calais before crossing the channel. Cecil initially resumed his work running the London underground power stations. Shortly afterwards he got a better job with the Office of Works (now the Ministry).

Initially, the family rented a house in Kew Gardens, then moved up the hill to Richmond. September 1940 brought the blitz. One night, “A bomb hit our house, bounced off and flattened the house opposite,” he writes. “There was no basement. Our father had reinforced a large closet with lumber and my sister and I slept there. Our parents slept on a couch right outside. When they heard a bomb coming down they jumped in on top of us. When the bomb hit our house my father turned around to close the closet door. There was no door to be closed. My slippers just inside the closet were never found.”

This experience, at age six, has haunted Harris off and on through much of his life. (At seven he told his mother “I wish I was dead.”) In his late teens, his parents directed him to a trade, five years of training in accountancy, instead of university. Music—singing—had become his refuge.

In merry old England at the time opportunities required credentials. Lacking a university certificate, with an American mother and being “twenty-five percent Jewish” all were barriers. In his mid-twenties, Harris headed for Italy, land of the music that he loved, and found accountancy work. “I got fired because I refused to sign a report that claimed we had done work that we hadn’t.” With relatives in New York he next sailed there, then wound up working in Seattle where he met and married his first wife. Then to San Francisco and later Palo Alto and Sunnyvale, where he opened his own CPA accountancy. Frequent weekends to the Monterey Peninsula led to moving house to Pebble Beach in 1978.

The Al Harris I have known personally for probably 30 years is part Don Quixote and part Peter Pan, an erudite intellect equally passionate about the classics of 19th century European music as about literature and biography. He fiercely advocates for new opera, complaining that the same old recurring repertoire is killing its audiences, but keeps going anyway. He is oblivious to jazz and most other American culture. To this day, he still speaks with a London accent. (He once put the emphasis on the second syllable, Ap-POM-attox, to the great amusement of several American friends.) In years gone by he sang with the Carmel Bach Festival chorus and more recently with the late Monterey Symphony Chorus under Leroy Kromm. But today he prefers to quest on, discovering new old music and documenting much of it for the very first time. The curious are invited to contact him at AlfredHarris@montereybay.com.