Guitarist/composer Ryan Meagher explores postapocalyptic soundscapes—and imagery—on the scintillating AftEarth, set for a May 19 release on Atroefy Records. On one level a quartet recording—with Portland, Oregon-based saxophonist Tim Willcox, bassist Andrew Jones, and drummer Charlie Doggett delving into 11 Meagher compositions (and a jazz setting of a Felix Mendelssohn composition)—it is also a collaboration with visual artist Tina Granzo, whose lonesome, haunting pen-and-ink images form the album’s packaging.

Though largely created in the shadow of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, AftEarth was initially conceived earlier, as a cross-disciplinary project dealing with themes of apathy, inaction, and the devastating effects they could bring to the world. With the advent of the pandemic, alienation and mortality inevitably became major players among those themes.

“Tina drew a ‘seed’ drawing for each [theme],” explains Meagher (pronounced Marr). “I wrote music for each theme/seed, and then she drew more art for each tune after hearing the music.”

The drawings feature odd juxtapositions of nature and manmade objects, portending the aftermath of ecological and technological disaster. While they unquestionably explore humans’ effects on the world around them, the drawings are empty of humans themselves; while Granzo simply believes that she is “terrible at drawing people,” that emptiness itself is a key component of both the visual and sonic sides of the project. The slow pace and echo effects of “AftEarth,” “End of the Rainbow,” and “The American Scream” suggest vast, lonely landscapes, bereft of companionship, while the melodic shapes of “Refuse, the Redeemer,” “Vanity’s Breath,” and “Scorched Berth” evoke an insular kind of sadness and regret.

Art and music are also featured in a series of videos created by Granzo and posted on Meagher’s web site (password: AmericanScream). “This project was partly inspired by the animated videos Brad Mehldau released alongside his Finding Gabriel album,” says Meagher. “Tina’s videos are one of the more compelling aspects of the abstract storytelling we set out to do. We wanted them to unfold slowly while the music develops, and for the viewer to wonder where this whole thing is going next.”

Yet for all its melancholy, both the art and the music are singularly beautiful. Meagher’s playing uses a variety of moods and colors to build striking melodies and solos, and locks in beautifully with Willcox’s tenor and soprano saxophones and, on three tracks, Clay Giberson’s piano and keyboards. Even more locked in are Jones and Doggett, who share a stark instinct for rhythmic punch.

Some of AftEarth’s themes became manifest during its creation. An early version of Meagher’s band fell apart due to their unease at rehearsing during COVID’s reign, and the ultimate recording took place during a freak summer heatwave in Portland. Nevertheless, they persisted, and their efforts paid off handsomely—casting a ray of hope on the dark themes of the project. If these musicians can succeed, the rest of us can, too.

About Ryan Meagher

Ryan Meagher was born in 1981 in San Jose, California. His childhood was driven by a love of baseball until, in his early teens, the discovery of grunge music led him first to Nirvana, then to the African American traditions of jazz and blues. The new passion carried him through high school and on to San Diego State University, where he was mentored by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos.

Meagher moved in 2003 to New York City, a year later making his debut album Sun Resoundingwithpianist Bryn Roberts and drummer Greg Ritchie. Fresh Sound New Talent releases Atroefy (2009) and Tone (2012) followed, the latter made during a bicoastal period: Meagher was living in New York but also attending graduate school at the University of Nevada, Reno. That same year, upon completing his MM, he moved to Portland, Oregon full time.

Upon arrival, Meagher quickly became a crucial component of the Rose City’s bustling jazz scene. He currently serves as cofounder and programming director of the Montavilla Jazz Festival, artistic director of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (and director of its attendant record label, PJCE Records), director of jazz programs at Lower Columbia College, and a teacher of guitar at both Mount Hood Community College and the University of Portland. He also works regularly with Portland luminaries including pianists George Colligan and Andrew Durkin, saxophonist Bryan Smith, and bassist Chris Higgins, in addition to Willcox, Jones, and Doggett. AftEarth is his ninth recording.