Jesse Ryan is a saxophonist, composer and educator who has a keen interest in the links between jazz and Afro-Caribbean musical traditions.
His captivating compositions speak to personal history, human connection and transcendence. He was the 2020 recipient of the Toronto Art Foundation’s Emerging Jazz Artist Award, and his debut recording Bridges was nominated for a Juno Award.
Ryan has just released a beautiful new single called The Night Before She Passed and he’s performing at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on June 29.
Ryan joined us to talk about the new single.
Bridges comes out and it gets nominated for a Juno Award. What has life been like for you since then?
It’s been amazing. First of all, I didn’t expect to be Juno-nominated. Being at the Junos was amazing, and getting to meet people there. Having put out the record and had the opportunity to get the feedback from people, I’m in a different space. It’s a good space. There have been so many things that have come out of it since the record came out. It’s been great.
Your album talks so much about connection, and those threads between your past and your present. I imagine a lot of people can relate to that.
Absolutely. Growing up in Trinidad was really formative for me, and when I had the opportunity to study in the U.S. and then go back home, it was a culture shock. There are some aspects of my culture that I didn’t really get into until I moved away. I’m still very much trying to find that ancestral DNA through everything that I’m doing.
This new single The Night Before She Passed is also very personal. It’s also about connection, but interrupted connection. Can you talk about how this song came to be?
When I moved to Toronto in 2013, I had been away from my family before, but I had this unspoken fear of losing a loved one while I was away. That became a reality in 2017. My mom was diagnosed with cancer [the year before], and it was pretty quick. She passed away on July 27, 2017. I was here in Toronto when she passed away. I couldn’t travel home in time to be with her. That was really traumatic. When that happened, I knew that one of the ways that I could deal with the trauma and process my grief was to write some music. That’s how this song came about. I knew that I didn’t want to write a melancholy ballad, but I was trying to channel some of the emotions that I felt that night before she passed. I remember my dad called me, and we were talking, praying and encouraging each other, and there was this sense that the end could be near, but I was still hopeful. It’s unlike any other experience, losing a loved one. Anybody who has been through that, you know what that’s like. I’m sure it’s different for everybody, but I think processing loss and that sense of disconnection, even just feeling numb … this song is really trying to channel all of those feelings. I’m really happy that I had some great friends to make this recording.
You were talking about how you couldn’t be there with your mom. I think over the last few years, a number of us can relate to that forced disconnect — having to grieve by yourself. What did you learn about the process of moving through grief when you were separated like that?
I think for anyone who has been through the experience of losing a loved one and not being able to be there with them, there’s a sense of guilt that you feel. I could have been there. I should have been there. I’ve had to learn how to process that feeling and know that there isn’t anything I could have done in that moment. It’s brought my family and I closer together. We try to be there for each other. It’s been tough and it’s definitely changed the entire fabric of our family, but I’ve learned that death is part of life. It’s part of the life cycle. It’s helped me come to terms with the cycle of life. It’s made me even more eager to fulfill my fullest potential, because I know that life is short. Now I have my own son — he’s six months old. I waited a long time to start a family; my wife and I got married 10 years ago. That [experience] put a fire under me to start my own family. Maybe in a couple of years, my son can write a song.
You were saying that you didn’t want to write a melancholy ballad. There’s something celebratory about this tune. I love the solo in the middle — it feels like there’s this section of dissonance in the middle that splits everything that comes before and after it. Was that purposeful?
There are a couple of emotions that I experienced that night. There was the sense of numbness and apathy, figuring out how to process all these feelings and thoughts, and there was this sense of deep conflict that you hear in that ostinado section. But then there’s this celebratory, hopeful tune in that main theme, and it represents the joy that I felt being around my mom. That was very much intentional. It’s something I try to do with my writing. With instrumental music, you can’t rely on lyrics to communicate the message, so I find I have to be really intentional about the harmony, the melody, the chords and the groove to communicate what I want to say.
This interview has been edited and condensed.