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 des Copains too, so he was certainly popular and well-known among Toronto jazz fans.

Though Ray was very much a traditionalist, his piano playing defied easy pigeon-holing, it was very complete, kaleidoscopic and utterly personal. He came up as a young player in bebop when it was cutting-edge music and played with people like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, but he was equally comfortable with mainstream/swing masters such as Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate, Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge. He wasn’t really a typical bebop pianist rhythmically or harmonically – he wasn’t always so linear and had more of a left hand than most other modern pianists.

His playing was a rich gumbo comprising many of the earlier elements of jazz piano history – a very strong presence of the blues and gospel, some stride piano and boogie-woogie, which came out more in his solo piano work. From his training there was a lot of ‘classical’ piano music in him, which influenced his sound and approach to harmony and there was also a strong trace of Teddy Wilson. Duke Ellington and Count Basie were also present – Ray didn’t sound like either of them, but loved both, often playing music drawn from their vast repertoires. Also, to a certain degree, he conceived of the piano trio as a small big band, was a very two-fisted, orchestral pianist and the twin columns of the Ellington and Basie bands were part of the inspiration behind this.

This flexibility and the unusual mixture of classical, blues, and gospel influences was also reflected in the range of moods and emotions Ray could project in a set, or even just within the confines of the blues. He could go from the barrelhouse of Avery Parrish’s “After Hours” to the delicacy of his own “Blues Changes”, a set of chords on the blues form that were almost European in character and could have been written by John Lewis, a pianist he much admired. None of this came across as pastiche though, like a guy doing party tricks giving you four bars of every pianist who ever lived on one tune or anything like that. He was far too much of an artist and too tasteful for that sort of thing, it all came out sounding like Ray Bryant. It’s just that he started playing the piano at a very early age in a musical family, heard and loved all these types of music and he was enough of a virtuoso to incorporate all these elements in one funky, elegant and unique package. He spent his life in love with the sound of the piano and his music was very much about exploring the endless combination of timbres and colours that could be coaxed out of it. I long ago stopped trying to put a label or name on his style, as far as I was concerned he played Ray Bryant music and I always found it very rewarding fun to play with or listen to.

Apart from the stylistic range, the things you noticed most in Ray’s playing were sound and rhythm. I’ve played with a lot of pianists and Ray got a sound out of the instrument unlike anyone else I’ve heard: it was deep, rich, crunchy, a tactile pleasure in and of itself. His sound was always there, regardless of the venue or piano, really it came from inside of him. I’m out of my depth here because I’m not a pianist, but I’m guessing his years of classical training, his touch and use of the pedals and so on were all factors in this. There was something else at work here though, an alchemy of sorts which created a kind of force-field of sound, and I think his immersion in gospel music had a lot to do with it. He didn’t just voice chords, he voiced the piano itself, getting its registers to ring together in various ways so that the sound was more than the sum of its parts. It wasn’t loud, just very big, full and the piano always rang and sounded very in tune when he played it, even if it wasn’t.

Pianists who have come up through gospel music – even not such good ones – have this sonic palette: very bright and ringing in the top register, fat and percussive in the middle and just roaring down at the bottom. Ray had a great love of low sounds – he played some bass in high school and his brother Tommy was a very solid bass player who often played with Ray before dying prematurely. Ray’s most distinctive quality was his left hand and the sound he produced in the bass register of the piano – again, not loud but very round, vibrant and stentorian. I’ve never been able to figure out how or why, I guess it had something to do with the sonic force-field I alluded to earlier, but this massive bottom end didn’t block out the sound of the bass, but rather amplified it, much like Freddie Greene’s rhythm guitar or Jake Hanna’s Chinese cymbal and ‘feathering’ quarter-notes on the bass drum did. In Ray’s case this was counter-intuitive, but I wasn’t about to argue. It felt too good to play with.

Earlier, I mentioned Teddy Wilson as an influence in the gentler side of Ray’s sound and approach in several ways. Wilson had a firm but very delicate touch, played a refinement of stride with 4/4 walking tenths and had a pearly sound featuring decorative, gossamer runs.  Ray had these too and used them, especially on ballads or when accompanying people – full, but very light. Although Wilson didn’t play as much as Art Tatum – who did? – he often sounded like he had a third hand. He would play all kinds of things up high and down low, but there was also a tenor voice present which he achieved by using his thumbs together in the middle register, playing little lines or intervals separate from each hand. As someone who generally can only play one note at a time, it makes me dizzy just thinking about this subtle high-wire act of coordination, but Teddy had this kind of elegant intricacy and so did Ray, along with all his funkiness.

Whether playing solo, in a trio, backing singers or horn soloists, Ray was a rhythmic powerhouse, generating tremendous drive and swing with a really wide, rolling beat you could drive a truck through. Only pianists who conceive of the piano in such percussive and orchestral terms get this fat a pocket. Ellington and Basie had it, so did Thelonious Monk and Dave McKenna, though they were very different. Randy Weston has it too, a kind of elemental, bedrock, rollicking kind of swing, very physical and spacious. Ray wasn’t as big as some of these men, but he was built like a fire hydrant, he had the kind of weight to impose his will on a rhythm section and of course his sound was a part of this too. There was a kind of paradox in the wide beat Ray had: it was very intense, yet also very relaxed. It made you dig in and play hard, but there was never anything anxious or frantic about it because it was so fat and secure. There was never any question of things speeding up or slowing down, his feel just kind of settled and throbbed right down the middle with its own infectious, romping momentum.

The history and evolution of jazz piano would be vastly different if Pennsylvania were to be somehow taken out of the equation. Ray of course came from Philadelphia, which produced many fine pianists and other musicians, especially during the bebop years. Though Red Garland was from Dallas, he cut his musical teeth in Philly and was very active on its scene when Ray was coming up. Shortly after Ray’s arrival the city produced Bobby Timmons and a little later, McCoy Tyner. When you consider these pianists and the distinctiveness of the R & B/Soul music to emerge from there, Philly must have had an incredible gospel music tradition going, or else it was something in the water. Just up the road, the smaller city of Pittsburgh produced an even more impressive range of pianists over a longer period. Try Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Dodo Marmarosa, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Clark and Horace Parlan on for size. Oh, and Keith Jarrett is from nearby Allentown. Whew.

During the height of the soul-jazz craze of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Ray became one of the earlier ‘fusion’ jazz artists, before that term was even coined. He had some cross-over hits with pieces like “Little Susie”, “Slow Freight”, “Cubano Chant” and “Sneakin’ Around.” It’s hard to say whether this commercial success was deliberately engineered or not, because these pieces all came out of the large bag Ray played in to begin with, and it was in his nature to play music that people simply enjoyed. Though there was a high level of technique and artistry involved, Ray thought of his music in part as a form of entertainment. From that point forward, these pieces and others became a set part of his repertoire, at least in clubs – people wanted to hear them and he was expected to play them, so he did. Far from bothering him, he seemed to enjoy this – these pieces were often both fun and challenging to play on the piano, as were some of the elaborate solo numbers he would play, like his version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.” I never had the feeling he was coasting or pandering to the audience in any of this – there was too much effort involved and he had too much integrity for that.

Inevitably though, there were criticisms leveled at him from some quarters for playing too much of the same thing nightly, not improvising enough and other such rot. The first time I played with Ray, a local pianist who should have known better referred to his playing as “cocktail-ish”, to which Don “D.T.” Thompson inimitably replied, “No, more motherf—–ish actually.” I really liked Ray and enjoyed playing with him, so my reaction to these complaints was hardly neutral, generally it was along the lines of “So what?” First of all, Ray always included un-arranged pieces with lots of straight-ahead blowing on every set – “In A Mellotone”, “Django”, “Milestones”, “Broadway” and many more. Secondly, yeah, the set-pieces were pretty worked out, but most of them were finger-busters, involved a massive amount of piano playing and complexity.

Despite its heavy reliance on improvisation, jazz has also long had a tradition of set-pieces, from Armstrong and Teagarden to the solos by Ben Webster on “Cottontail” or Illinois Jacquet on “Flyin’ Home” – these started as improvisations but were so definitive they became part of the arrangement. This sort of thing was certainly a part of Harlem piano styles like stride or boogie-woogie – the degree of difficulty was so high the pieces had to be worked out, and Bryant absorbed these styles. Beyond that, yes, Ray sometimes played the same stuff on some pieces nightly, but it was his stuff and his stuff alone. The carping completely overlooked his originality, how long it must have taken him to develop some of these pieces and the piano traditions he was trying to uphold. Nobody else played this way, where else were you going to hear this? What was he supposed to do, disappoint a lot of his audience by not playing these signature pieces?

Improvisation is not a gilt-edged guarantee of musical quality or integrity: it’s a how, not a what. In person, I’ve heard great musicians such as Sonny Rollins or Lee Konitz create magical music largely by improvising, but I’ve also heard others crash and burn, play really self-indulgently while doing the same. As a jazz musician, I believe in and care deeply about improvisation, but I think it can be overrated. As a listener I mostly care about whether the music sounds any good or not, not how this is achieved. Finally, I don’t wish to dump on my own backyard, but these complaints about Ray always smacked of small-town-Toronto to me. Do you really think that people who went to hear him in Chicago, New York, Paris or Tokyo were sitting around debating the quotient of improvising in his playing? No, they were too busy listening, tapping their feet, clapping on two and four, having a good time, which is partly what this music is for in the first place.

Perhaps because he had a career as a solo artist and a knack of arranging pieces for piano trio, Ray made some fairly specific demands on the bass and drums. Generally he wanted high-pitched sounds from the drums – brushes, cymbals, high-hat, snare drum, sometimes some shuffle or a light backbeat. He didn’t want a lot of tom-tom or bass drum interaction, he mostly wanted the drummer to play time and stay out of the way. He had some bass parts which he wanted played as written Generally he liked the bass to play in the low register and for good reason, as this affected the voicing of the trio. I found that if I met him halfway on what he needed, I always had a wonderful time playing with him, partly because he was a nice, easy-going guy, partly because so much of his music was based on or around the blues, which I’ve always loved. Mostly though it was the business I mentioned about how the bass sounded like a house blending with his piano sound, it was a joy to take a dip in this sonic bath. I sensed that drummers were less involved and able to partake in this reward; it seemed they were a little less enthusiastic than I was about playing with him. I’ll always regret that I was never able to ace my good friend John Sumner on to playing drums with Ray on a gig – John loved Ray’s music and knew it well, it would have been a very happy band. The last time I played with Ray was the first time for drummer Barry Elmes with him – Elmes enjoyed it and sounded great as usual.

When I first played with Ray, what little I knew of his work mostly came from hearing Dizzy Gillespie’s record “Sonny Side Up” with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, which featured Ray on the fairly involved slow blues “After Hours”. This helped, when we played that the first night there was a good bass part for it, but I was able to play it with some authority because I was familiar with it. Ray said “Nice reading man” but I told him I didn’t read too well, but knew the piece from that record. This seemed to please him, gave me some traction.

I wasn’t so lucky with “Slow Freight”, I got some schooling on that one. It’s a medium-slow, three-chord blues in G with a gently rocking shuffle-beat that is meant to evoke the honky-tonk sound of trains, which it surely did. The bass part was beyond simple – long quarter-notes down low, all roots, but I still managed to foul it up. I noticed Ray’s left hand was doing something subtly different than the bass part – a dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth-note skip-beat, root and fifth. Trying to be conscientious, I doubled this on the bass and he immediately turned and barked “Quarter notes.” The piece went on for a while, building in intensity till it became a cathedral of blues sound, just massive. My hand started to cramp up holding down all those low notes so I tried to get some relief by playing some of the Gs on the open string. He called out, “Stay downstairs, man”, (in other words, play the part, dumb-ass.) I thought, ‘” Boy, there’s no cheating with this guy, he hears everything.”

Afterward he said with a smile that he knew playing all those low notes was tough, but bass players have to develop some muscles and patience. He explained that the whole piece was based on the low quarter-notes; that the skip-beat he was playing had to stand out, pointing out that with only three guys everyone in a trio should play something different so the sound and beat would be fatter. It makes a hell of a lot of sense when you think about it.

Ray was the first player of stature to really take an interest in my playing, he gave me a lot of direction. We talked a lot of music without him lecturing or being negative, but rather encouraging and frank. At the time I was using more amplification than necessary, and was trying to play faster and higher than I knew how to. I also mostly played way on top of the beat and had a tendency to rush tempos. Over time, he went to work on sorting some of this out, saying the sound really came from my hands and the bass, I was already digging in pretty good and too much amp just made the sound less real and less clear. He suggested I try to play more simply and rhythmically on solos, not run around so much playing too many notes. “Try to play shorter phrases that say something like a sentence, then leave a gap, then play another one.” He also pointed out that you didn’t have to play up high to play a good bass solo, the low register had some impact too. “You’ve got a big sound and good time, so use them.” Also, he thought I was getting in my own way worrying too much about playing in tune on solos, that I should try not hitting notes right on the button but slide into them, try some slurs and smears. He also pointed out something profound I’d never thought about before: that your solo isn’t just about you, it’s part of the overall fabric of a whole performance, so think about variety, contrast, the big picture. If the people playing ahead of you are playing a lot of notes, fast and high, then play slow and down low, maybe walk a little to start out, settle things down a little, relax. He also suggested I ease up on the beat a little, that bassists like Ray Brown and Ron Carter who played on top were great, but maybe I should check out some guys like Walter Page, Leroy Vinnegar and Doug Watkins, who played hard, but right down the middle. Above all, he taught me the importance of tone, of sound, that it was the biggest single thing any player could have going for them.

Ray really knew about the bass, I probably learned more about playing it from him than in any bass lesson I ever had. He gave me a ton of great information to think about and it had a major impact coming from him. Although the context of playing with him was really unique, I gradually found ways of translating these ideas to playing with others. From his advice I started to check out older jazz and earlier players, which really broadened my horizons. Really, the gist of his message was in the lesson from “Slow Freight” – there are no short-cuts, no cheating in jazz.

I will always be immensely grateful for getting the chance to play with and know Ray Bryant and, above all, for the musical lessons he so generously taught me.

© 2012 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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