I have always been surprised by the number of top quality musicians who fail to receive the recognition they deserve from the jazz criticism community. This became very clear to me from the research I did for my book The Flute in Jazz. A case in point is Sam Most, the "father of jazz flute" according to Ira Gitler, still gigging around L.A. and selling his CDs from the trunk of his car while younger, better looking and far less accomplished players garner the headlines and the kudos.
There is nothing new about this. 70 years ago, legendary pianist Mary Lou Williams railed against the power of "paid-for publicity," complaining that "most anybody can become a great name if he can afford enough of it. In the end, the public believes what it reads. So it is difficult for the real talent to break through." Nothing much has changed since then, except that there is, if anything, more hype today and it moves and spreads with greater speed through the new media which respond more to flash and fad than to substance. Reader's polls simply reflect what appears in print.
In this context, it comes as no surprise to learn that, after decades of toil as traveling soloist, clinician and recording artist, and in spite of unstinting praise for her musicianship from her professional peers, flutist Ali Ryerson is still not a household name in the jazz world. Being a flutist is still a handicap and being a woman is another strike against her. In addition, her approach is all about musicianship, elegance, intelligence and a sophisticated harmonic sense placed at the service of her melodic imagination.
In Ryerson's case, however, a door recently opened to present her with new career possibilities. In recognition of her years of work as a clinician for Gemeinhardt, the company offered to design a signature flute for her under its Brio! line. As part of the package, they also provided the finances for to produce this recording. Ali is no stranger to the recording studio--this is her 20th album as either leader or sideman--but it has been some time since she has had the opportunity to hire a "dream team" of accompanying players, and the time to gather a set of original compositions, with a view to making the CD a more integrated piece of music, rather than just a collection of standards.
The resulting recording, performed on the prototype of the new Brio line, finds Ali at the hight of her powers, inspired by the playing of her companions and exhibiting all the qualities of lyricism, intelligence and grace that have been the hallmark of her work for decades.
She has selected some high-powered colleagues. Egan and Gottlieb are Pat Metheney's rhythm section and Mike Mainieri has been the leader of Steps Ahead for 30 years. Pete Levin has worked with a who's-who of jazz artists from Miles Davis and Gil Evans to Jimmy Giufre and Wayne Shorter. Mike DeMicco, who replaces Mainieri on four selections is best known for his work with the Brubeck Brothers group.
With compositions by DeMicco, Mainieri, Giuffre, John Abercrombie and Levin, who also wrote all the arrangements, the colors and textures offered by these players are fully exploited, including the flute/vibraphone combination which has not been heard that often. The mood ranges from funk (Con Brio!) to sraight-ahead (Lydian Grin) and vamp-based grooves (Another Time, Another Place) to gorgeous ballads, especially the haunting Where Flamingos Fly, the evokes the exquisite Gil Evans version without parroting it.
These are top class musicians caught at the top of their game, and it speaks volumes for Ryerson that the whole "can you play jazz on the flute" issue is put to bed once and for all.
Perhaps now, after a lifetime of intensive work and dedicated study, Ali Ryerson may be poised to become an overnight success.