(Interview & Photography by: Aaron Paschal)
I’ve been a fan of Ryan Portrer’s music since I heard the first note off of his sophomore album (The Optimist). When I saw that Kamasi Washington was was booked to play at The Rose Music Center the first thing I did was reach out to Ryan Porter to see if he was touring along with Kamasi and if so if he’d be willing to get together for an interview.
Well he obviously agreed but I’m not sure if I would consider this an interview. Although this was our first time meeting it was more like two old friends getting together and just talking.
As we headed to the backstage dressing room of the Rose Music Center the mass shootings that took place in Dayton, Ohio’s popular Oregon District a few days earlier was clearly at the forefront of Ryan’s mind...
Ryan Porter: How are things here in Dayton since the shootings?
Aaron Paschal: Dayton is strong. Of course we are in the early stages of the healing process and we are still in a bit of shock that we had a mass shooting in our city but overall there’s a genuine effort to come together as a community and start the healing process as one united front.
RP: I’m real sad about what happened here in Dayton and it’s impossible to not feel attached to it. You don’t even have to know people personally to feel the pain from senseless shootings. I didn’t know Nipsey Hussle at all because we ran in different circles but at the same time because I know his neighborhood and the type of people that come from there and I knew what he was trying to do I still felt a connection to him. Like he could have been my nephew so it hurts. It took awhile for me to watch all of that video because it just hurt so much. And that was just one person so I can’t even imagine what Dayton is going through with nine innocent lives being taken away.
The weight of what people are dealing with right now is serious. There’s a lot of change going on right now and some people are having a hard time embracing it. I’m a musician so my surroundings change all the time. I was in a different country last night. I understand that my job is temporary. I’ve had to understand all of these different things about what I’m doing in order to embrace change and I feel like sometimes the way things are set up people are so secure with things being the same all of the time. So when things become a little unbuckled they have every right to be stressed out and worried about the outcome. I feel like the current president is someone who kind of fuels these things. Pushes things in a direction that it really doesn’t have to go in and he doesn’t understand the weight of his words. Some people are actually going to take these things to heart and act out.
As someone that travels a lot and goes to different countries we get images subconsciously handed to us all of the time. If you want to know what it’s like in Jamaica; here we have this image for you. If you want to know what it’s like in any country around the world; “here, this is what we want you to think of this place.” But when you go to these places and you get a chance to actually see and meet the people for your self and have a cultural exchange it shows you that here in the United States we focus way too much on race. Once you get to a place that you can actually turn that down and focus on individuals instead of race you can actually handle some things together.
I give by spreading love and unity through music. We promote unity and togetherness by being in a band. People see and hear us working alongside each other. They see what we can accomplish as a unit. I feel like we inspire people through our music so I feel like I’m in a good place right now. So I’m going to continue on this path and promote love and unity through music.
The thing that hurts is when you know that there are kids out there that look up to you and that you are inspiring them to go out and chase their dreams and then you hear about all of the shootings that can impact or even end their lives… that hurts. It happens in L.A. too where you go out looking for people and you hear that something bad happened to them and you’re like “that wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s unfortunate.
Weapon of Choice
AP: what was it about the trombone that got your attention?
RP: I was hanging out in my grandfather in his garage one day and he had tons of records. This one record started playing and as soon as I heard it it made me inquire about it. I was like “man who is this? What instrument is he playing?” My grandfather was like that’s J.J. Johnson and he showed me the record. After that I’d be hanging out with my grandfather asking him to play some J.J. for me. I was five years old at the time and I’ve been hooked ever since so the trombone pretty much chose me.
Force For Good
Musicians have been blessed with the gift oof taking pain and suffering and turning it into love. John Coltrane is the perfect example of that. In fact my new album (Force for Good) is the growth and development that Coltrane had in music helps me and is kind of a template for me to work off. It’s like “so he was one of the best and I want to know what he was thinking about, how did he get to be the best?” His thing was he loved music so much that he was willing to change who he was to be the best at what he did. He knew what his purpose was so he changed a lot about himself. That’s one of the things that I appreciated about him because he had this Force For Good method. He was in a world where they were burning up churches with black girls in it and the forces of evil were there but at the end he wasn’t a politician, he was a saxophone player. He used his music (the song Alabama) to created these feelings that went beyond words. It became somewhat of a film score to me for someone that was trying to be on this path to be a Force For Good for other people and so that’s what inspired the title for my newest album.
AP: I hear the influence of John Coltrane’s music on your album, especially on the song (Carriacou).
RP: Laughs, Oh yeah. It’s not necessarily his music but more so his spirit and a lot of Kamasi Washington. But that’s really where it’s is trying to bring the spirit to the music. We understand that music can be healing and some music can be used to kind of detach from the world for a few minutes. Music can be used to help with a wide range of emotions but I feel like now there’s so much going on out in the world that there has to be more music for healing. That’s my contribution to society. People see that and that’s how you become an influence. Growing up in Los Angeles I saw that all of the time. By people just doing they're things they became a part of the daily rhythm of other people’s lives and helped influence them in that way. It’s amazing how that really becomes contagious.
I try to give all that I can. If I had a lot I would give a lot. When we were overseas in the Netherlands touring I heard about this 9 year old kid that was in Brass Band School that had to turn in his trumpet because he was about to move away. This little man loves playing the trumpet so in my heart I knew I had to do something. So I didn’t mind taking a chance on this kid by getting him a trumpet so that he can keep playing. I’ve never had a problem paying things forward. Like I said... “music is my way of being a Force For Good.”
AP: What’s it like to be out on the road sharing the same stage with Herbie Hancock?
RP: Being on tour with Herbie Hancock has been amazing. I look at it as a blessing. I just turned 40 and he is 79 so that’s a lot of experience that he has to share with me and the other guys as we travel from place to place to perform. So many things have changed since he started playing music and he went right along with the changes… even to this day. So it’s inspiring. I really appreciate being here and having someone like Herbie that I can go to and talk to about not just music but we talk about any and everything. It’s amazing. The people that come to the show tonight are definitely in for a treat.
AP: There’s a song on Force For Good titled (Maggie); I know that song is special to you - do you mind telling us a little about it?
RP: This song is for my mother. She passed away a few years ago and this song helped me bring things to closure. My mother had a beautiful soul. She was a visual artist and always encouraged me and my siblings to embrace who we were. She developed Alzheimer and dementia in the later stages of her life. When play or even hear this song I “feel” my mother’s spirit. It also makes me think of all other women that carry that sweet, loving spirit. (Maggie) is my tribute to my mother and I know that through this song I’m able to not only honor her but I’m able to share my love for her through music with everyone that listens to it.
AP: I know you have two kids… do they realize who their dad is as related to the music industry and how dope you are? Do you think they feel pressure to be musicians?
RP: (laughs) I have two daughters and they are my life. They are starting to realize exactly what I do. They know that I travel a lot to play and they see my daily grind. I never pressure them about music or playing any instruments, “I save that for their homework!” (laughs.) No, but seriously they see and hear me practicing and working on my music all of the time and so if they choose to play music that’s how I’ll influence them. My oldest daughter does play the guitar and even taught some of her classmates how to play (the ABC Song) off of my (Spangle Lang Lane) album. So that was a proud dad moment where I had to fight back the tears! My youngest daughter is more of a visual artist and she’s good at it! So yeah, both of my daughters are great and I’m excited to see where their futures are going to take them. They have a pretty good feel for what I do, but they aren’t old enough to listen to all of the songs that I play on so that’ll come later in time. It’s hard being on tour and away from them for long periods of time but they know that I love them and that this is how I provide for them.
West Coast Get Down
AP: The West Coast Get Down has been dropping a lot of great music the past few years. What’s it like to be a part of a group that understands the power of unity and togetherness when it comes to making music and longevity?
RP: Man its great! We all inspire each other and we know that as individuals and as a collective that we inspire a younger generation. When we were younger we had musicians in our neighborhoods that cared enough about us to invest in us. There were people that would drive around and pick us up, donate instruments and provide a safe place to practice our music. That’s how I met Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin and some of the other people associated with the West Coast Get Down.
Growing up in L.A. carrying that instrument case around pretty much gave you a free pass to move around the different gang territories without being bothered. I always knew that gang life wasn’t for me and I loved music so it all worked out great. Not only that but when I first met Kamasi I was like, “okay, here’s someone that loves music just as much as me!” So with the West Coast Get Down we are able to all get together and make music in ways that we couldn’t if we all just worked alone. The way technology is now and how artists tend to record albums they miss out on so much. I miss the days of bands like the Ohio Players and Earth With and Fire. So many great songs come together by pushing each other and bouncing ideas around a room full of other talented people. I hope we get back to having more bands and groups in the music industry.