One of the city’s top brass ascends to the national stage
BY APRIL REESE | PORTRAIT BY PETER OGILVIE
Ryan Montaño and Mick Jagger share something in common, and it’s not just their profession. Like Jagger, Montaño possesses ample lips, the kind that some women pay thousands of dollars in Botox injections to create. But while Jagger uses his to enthrall a crowd, pouting and sneering through, say, “Under My Thumb,” Montaño’s smackers are an extension of his instrument. “I think they give me an advantage,” he says, sitting in the living room of the small Rio Rancho home he shares with his girlfriend, a Miles Davis poster hanging a few feet away. In marrying control and feeling, Montaño’s lips can evoke a languid lament one moment and an acrobatic crescendo of joy the next.
Montaño, whose career has seen a steady climb since his first official radio single was released in 2014, has been putting brass to lips since he was 12 years old. Growing up in Tijeras, the second youngest child in a large musical family, Montaño’s parents and siblings encouraged him to pursue music. After years of daily practice, local and touring gigs, and a detour into acting and a videography career—Montaño was the University of New Mexico’s videographer for a time and still freelances as one—he now makes a living almost entirely from music. Over the past six years, two of his singles, “I’d Like That” and “Honey Girl,” reached the top 15 on the Billboard jazz charts, establishing Montaño as a national artist, and his live performances—most notably a buzz-worthy performance at the Seabreeze Jazz Festival in Florida in 2015 and, more recently, as musical director of a local ensemble he handpicked for the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce event La Noche Encantada in February—have made him a sought-after live act.
“I’ve always believed in myself,” he says. “If I look back, even like three years ago, it’s terrible. Why would I think I could do that on a national or international level? But I guess I’m a little bit crazy.”
Montaño, who is loose and playful on stage and serious, polite, and contemplative offstage, attributes his success not only to his musical skill and confidence but also to his adeptness at self-promotion. Every day after practice, he’s on the computer, reaching out to promoters, bookers, radio programmers, and potential collaborators. “For every 20 emails I send, I get one response,” he says. “It’s usually a ‘no.’” But every now and then it’s a “yes”—and some of those yeses have made a crucial difference in his career.
One of them came from Darren Rahn, an accomplished producer based in Denver. Montaño’s high school band director knew Rahn, a connection he mentioned in his email. After listening to Montaño’s music, Rahn agreed to collaborate, and a few months later “I’d Like That”—a playful, funky tune with a melody just as earworm-worthy as that of any pop song—was born. The single was Montaño’s second professional release. Since then, the two have collaborated on two other singles.
“He’s got a pretty complex musical mind, he has a very fine ear, and he has very distinct taste, so my job as a producer is to bring that into focus,” Rahn says. While some musicians need a lot of direction, Montaño requires little guidance, he adds. “Ryan is a very, very capable musician. He plays at a pretty high level, so I think my job is to let him express himself. I focus on letting him come through, because he’s a good enough musician for that.”
Reflecting on his career so far, Montaño says he feels a certain satisfaction in having been his own boss. “What I’m most proud of is that everything I’ve accomplished has been through my own hard work,” he says. “I’m not beholden to anybody, I’m not with a record label.”
Montaño’s laser focus is now aimed at songwriting—he cites John Mayer and Norah Jones as recent influences—and strengthening the Albuquerque music community. “Whatever success I’ve had, I feel it’s my professional and social responsibility to pay it forward,” he says. That can include encouraging an up-and-coming musician to negotiate a higher rate for a gig, connecting one artist with another, or using his video skills to help another musician create a professional video. “That’s really, really important to me,” he says. In the age of the internet, musicians can build a successful career anywhere, he adds. “You don’t have to live in Los Angeles or New York. I really want to show people that it’s possible, through believing in yourself and hard work.”
In the coming months, Montaño will release his second album, Truth Journey. It chronicles his experience trying to find his way to his own musical truth while also attempting to bring his music to as many people as possible.
Montaño can do anything he wants to do, and that includes crossing over into other genres, Rahn says. “Ryan is a very wellrounded musician, so I think even though Ryan has been making a name in the smooth jazz industry, he’s capable of playing far beyond smooth jazz,” Rahn says.
As for Montaño, he’ll keep playing his trumpet, writing songs that challenge him, and sending out those emails. “I hope I’m in the middle of an ascension, and my goals now are to not take it for granted and not f—k it up.”