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 for 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.