Music Ryan's hope

Local singer-songwriter has a whole lotta chutzpah

Velpean Ryan has played with rock and funk bands, run sound for the heavyweight Chilean group La Ley, and hung out with an endless succession of hipster jazz cats. None of that fazed him. But he couldn't handle the chemical excesses and sexual hedonism of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Singer/pianist Velpean Ryan belts out a song during a Wednesday night jam at the Oak Hills Tavern Jazz Annex. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Ryan took the circus gig earlier this year, assisting the chief soundman by ensuring the musical performers could hear everything in their headphones. The experience swiftly wore him out. "I was a little weak for the circus," Ryan, 32, concedes. "They `the technicians` were younger than me, and I don't do cocaine and I don't go to strip clubs. I understand why they were doing coke though, because you end up working 13-hour days.

I only slept five hours a night."

This is the upside-down life Ryan leads. He's a talented - if highly eccentric - songwriter and an extravagantly skilled pianist whose primary experience with the road has come not from fronting his own band but from touring with cruise ships and circuses.

If you haven't heard of Ryan, you're not alone. Though he's lived in San Antonio since infancy, he's never cut a major figure on the local scene. These days, his gigging consists of weekly mini-sets at the Oak Hills Tavern Jazz Annex, where he sits in for four or five songs during the Wednesday night jams.

Ryan's low profile, however, has more to do with his approach than any deficiencies in his musical arsenal. Rather than assembling a backing group, he's concentrated on writing and recording new material, confident that he couldn't put together the kind of band he envisions without the muscle of a record deal behind him.

"I kind of figured that people weren't going to follow me around unless there was a record deal or at least paying gigs," Ryan says. "You want to be with the really good players, and they're not going to be with a band that doesn't make any money.

"I can play the drums and bass and everything and I'll play 'cause I don't have to worry about someone being delayed and,anyway I know the song and what it has to be."

It's hard to peg Ryan. Skinny and bespectacled, with short dirty-blond hair, a mustache, and soul patch, he alternately looks like a bohemian English professor or a fashion-challenged session player. It's even harder to get a grip on his music. He cites no significant influences beyond the early work of Prince, but his flowery piano runs and complex chord structures suggest a considerable understanding of classical composition and jazz improvisation.

Ryan does have some training in his background, but it's not as serious as it sounds. He started on his grandmother's piano at age 3 and took four years of piano lessons as a kid, but he never learned to read music and relied on his acutely sensitive ear to fool his piano teachers. "They would put the music in front of me and I did a gag where I asked, 'Could you play it for me once?' Then I'd play it back for them. So I'd pick it up by ear, and they never knew I was doing that."

After graduating from Churchill High School, he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston but quickly washed out there. "I did one year and flunked everything," he says. "I stopped going to classes. The best thing about it is meeting the other people and sizing yourself up next to them."

While at Berklee, he tickled the ivories for the Go-Luckys, a funk band with five horn players and a five-piece rhythm section. He recalls, with a characteristic sense of drama, seeing his reflection in the mirror at Boston's House of Blues and deciding that funk was too limiting for him.

"After that, I just wanted to have some kind of music - which I'm kind of doing today - where I just throw everything together," he says. "The stuff just comes out so I'm going to put it down. It's God's signature and I'm just a faithful messenger, like I'm sure other people would tell you."

After his Boston band splintered in the mid-'90s, Ryan returned to SA and has subsequently earned a living as a studio engineer and live-gig soundman. He's never shaken, however, his belief in his own music or his hustler's drive to get it heard. As a teenager, he responded to an offer to join the Churchill Jazz Band by first insisting that they play one of his tunes (they complied).

In 2003, while manning the mixing board on a Celebrity Cruise Ship, he spent his late-night down time recording his songs on the ship's studio gear. "You're at the bottom of the boat, hauling ass to Hawaii or Alaska," he recalls. "I was lonely on the boat, in the middle of nowhere, so I was venting. I did a whole album there."

More recently, he sent a six-song demo to Coldplay's studio mixer Michael Brower. Ryan says Brower provided him the name of a friend at Astralwerks and agreed to lend his recommendation to the collection.

Ryan's songs range from the melancholy waltz "Sadder Than Cold" to the avant-garde ballad "Zxhon Zhhon" (reminiscent of Prince's "Under the Cherry Moon") to the stately pop of "Any Area." The tracks are simultaneously crude and grandiose, offering spare, lo-fi instrumentation but startling you with an operatic vocal passage or a lovely violin counterpoint. His voice can be grating when he drops to low registers, but it's an instrument that he wields with unbridled passion, particularly in his performances at the Jazz Annex, where the players affectionately call him "Dr. John" and ably support him with almost no rehearsal. If his big break happens, he's confident that his circus and cruise-ship experiences will leave him well-prepared.

"I'm pretty road-ready because I've been on the road for so long," he says. "The whole lifestyle is usually OK by me."

By Gilbert Garcia

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