Ray, Redux

There were some Ray Bryant stories I wanted to get to in the earlier piece about him, but it was too long, as usual. I'm considering a reverse Tom Waits: having had a bottle in front of me for many years, I may opt for a frontal lobotomy in the hope it might shorten my writing. It's not as if it I'm a mental giant or anything, there would be no great loss involved. Anyway, here goes. Though he was fairly serious about music, Ray Bryant had a great sense of humour and a real belly laugh. He also had a mega-watt smile which involved his whole face, even his hair seemed to smile. Some of his humour was of the gallows, ironic variety and when he was delivering this, he had a habit of making his face go all deadpan and serious. His eyes would get wide and grave, he would sigh and could fool you into thinking he was mad. This all came into play one night during one of the earlier gigs I played with him at Bourbon St. around 1980 or so. Ray, Jerry Fuller and I were playing a set when Ted O'Reilly and Rob McConnell, both long-time fans, came in one night. Ray played his arrangement of Neal Hefti's "Girl Talk", one of his best and a real favourite of mine. It was a medium-tempo shuffle in F, and his approach was along the lines of theme-and-variations. Each chorus was kind of a shout chorus built around the melody and each one was slightly different, building and becoming more layered and involved, until the whole thing was grooving like the Basie band, just raging. After the more [...]

Ray, Barrelhouse and Elegant

The pianist Ray Bryant died in June of 2011 and has recently been on my mind a lot, mostly because I chanced to hear some of his records again lately. Though he made a lot of good ones, most of them don't quite do him justice. You really had to hear him live to get the full impact and joy of his playing. Luckily for me, I both heard and played with Ray live quite a bit - a couple of occasions at Bourbon St. when I was quite young and, later on, quite a few times at The Montreal Bistro. I learned a lot from him, some specific things which later had larger, more general implications. In the early going, he also reinforced some things I wasn't sure about yet. We didn't see each other often enough to be friends exactly, but there was certainly a very friendly history between us musically and personally. His death came as a real blow to me even though I knew he'd been ill. Both my mother and sister came to hear Ray the first time I played with him and they became instant fans. They both just loved him, especially my mother, who was a big piano fan in general. His delicate version of the ballad "My One and Only Love" made that song my sister's favourite standard, she chose it for her wedding dance. I introduced Ray to them and after that, he never failed to ask after them and always remembered their names, which floored me. He was that kind of guy though, a warm, unpretentious gent who enjoyed just plain folks. He often played in Toronto during the old days of solo piano at Cafe more [...]