Saxophonist Jesse Ryan on debut album Bridges: ‘It connects people’

The debut recording by saxophonist and composer Jesse Ryan is an eclectic and inspired album that brings together the sounds of North American jazz and Afro-Caribbean folk traditions.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Ryan was surrounded by music both in his family and in his community. Now establishing himself in the Toronto jazz scene, he blends the sounds of his home into his own music-making for a unique and fresh approach that’s being recognized by some of the best musicians in Canada.

After winning the 2020 Toronto Arts Foundation’s emerging jazz artist award, Ryan released Bridges, a nine-track album that — as its title suggests — looks to serve as a bridge between musical traditions from different parts of the world.

Ryan joined us to talk about his life and music.

I’ve read that you had said that this album is a celebration of the connections between North America and the islands of the Caribbean. Is this a notion you were really specific about when you went into the studio to record the album?

Absolutely. The concept of Bridges came about during my very first Canadian winter. I was studying at Humber at the time, heading to class. I was listening to this recording of Kenny  Garrett, and this song came on called Largo. When I listened to the melody, it was Michael Jackson’s We Are the World. I had this thought that I’m a Trinidadian on Canadian soil, listening to a jazz musician play a pop musician’s tune. I thought about [how] good music is a bridge. It connects people from different places and different backgrounds. That’s definitely my story. I grew up in a small town in Trinidad called Belmont, and here I was now in Canada trying to pursue my dreams. I was feeling grateful for the opportunity, but I also wanted to celebrate my roots.

Sometimes when you’re away from your home, you want to find ways to connect those threads and almost be in both places at the same time.

I find that that’s very true. It’s so important for me to find those threads. I find that I feel more connected now than even when I was back home. You just have to find those things that remind you of where you come from.

Sometimes when you’re young, you want to get away from home and explore the world. Then all of a sudden you realize that you owe everything to where you came from.

The other part of that story is that I also grew up in the Pentecostal church. Growing up in the ’90s, the world of church and African folk music didn’t always collide. It’s changed a lot since then — as a matter of fact, it was changing around that time. There was a lot of folk tradition that I didn’t necessarily get to taste at an early age.

Give me a sense of what your life was like. How did a saxophone get into your hands?

It was an accident. I actually wanted to play the trumpet. There was an older guy in my high school who was like the head boy, the prefect. He was doing music and playing trumpet, so I was really looking up to him at the time. I wanted to play the trumpet, and my dad misheard what I said and brought home a saxophone. I was OK, alright, I guess I’m playing the saxophone.

Your family is musical, and with some prominence, correct?

My family on my dad’s side is very musical. My grandfather Clifton Ryan, his calypsonian sobriquet is the Mighty Bomber. He was the first calypso king in Trinidad and Tobago in 1960.

What were you listening to growing up?

It was a mixture of calypso and Caribbean folk songs, and then my introduction to jazz was when my aunt bought me a walkman, and I remember turning on the station and hearing something jazz-esque. It might have been something like Broadway. My neighbours listened to Indian classical. It was a wide variety of music — everything from gospel to soul to R&B.

You said this: “As far back as I can remember, one of the things that attracted me to jazz was the fact that it creates a space where the collective is more important than the individual.” I think that’s very on point. Can you expand upon that?

Growing up in a place like the Trinidadian community shaped how I approach everything. In the context of my band, when I wrote the music, we played it for like two years before we actually recorded it. The music changed, it morphed, and what you hear on the album is the sum total of those two years of everybody putting their touch on it. All of them helped form what the music sounds like today.

Tell me about tambrin drumming, which you’ve uniquely brought to this jazz sound of yours.

Tambrin music is a drum and dance tradition from the island of Tobago. As I was writing the music, I wanted to find something that could ground what I was doing. Most of the music was written, and then I added the tambrin as an extra layer. I had to rework some of it to make it work. Tambrin started in colonial times, when the slaves were banned from playing drums. They had to find a way to continue their tradition of dance and communication, so they developed these thin drums that they could hide. It’s still very present on the island of Tobago. A small group of somewhat related families still keep the tradition alive. When I decided to dig into it, I really fell in love with it.

Larnell Lewis co-produced the record. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with him and what he brought to the table.

Larnell is one of the reasons why I live in Canada right now. I had studied in the U.S. for a bit and I was thinking of moving to New York, and another friend of mine brought Larnell to Trinidad to do some workshops, and he mentioned Humber Music. He’s been part of my support system here. When I mentioned to him that I was doing the album, I asked him if he wanted to be involved as a co-producer. I owe a lot to Larnell. Putting a debut project out, there’s a lot of pressure. Having his support helped me work through all of that anxiety.

I saw you make a post about Ralph Peterson Jr., who we recently lost. What are your thoughts on him?

I really wish I was a drummer, to be honest. I really love the drums and for me, he’s up there with Jeff “Tain” Watts and all the great drummers. But the main thing about Ralph was his dedication to mentorship. Look at all the generations of drummers thanking him for his contribution to their life. Condolences to his family, friends and students.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.