Saturday, March 24, 2012

John Raymond talks about his music, his faith, and his new CD

John Raymond
The opening track of “Strength and Song,” the John Raymond Project’s first recording, starts with a fanfare. Two crisp, insistent trumpet phrases, each played four times, seem to say, “Here we are!” The song is titled “Already and Not Yet.” Confidence mixed with humility, a fitting description of Raymond himself.

Jazz trumpeter/composer John Raymond grew up in Golden Valley, Minnesota, attended the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire (known for its jazz program), and earned his master’s degree from SUNY Purchase. A finalist in the 2009 National Trumpet Competition, he has played with many top jazz artists at venues across the US. Raymond now lives in New York City and is planning his first European tour.

Produced by Jon Faddis, featuring Javier Santiago on piano and Fender Rhodes, Gerald Clayton on piano, Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Tim Green on alto sax, Raviv Markovitz on bass, and Cory Cox on drums, “Strength and Song” is a debut recording, but it neither feels nor sounds like a freshman effort. The compositions are melodic, thoughtful, and complete. Hear them once and you’ll know them when you hear them again. Raymond’s tone is clear and direct, without affectation. Moods and tempos vary, as they should, but this is largely upbeat, uplifting music. Celebratory yet reflective. Rock-solid, with something to say.

“Strength and Song” was officially released on Feb. 28 and streamed on NextBop that week. The Cornelia Street Café hosted a CD release event on March 22, and on Thursday, March 29, the John Raymond Project will play the Dakota in Minneapolis. Raymond’s band in Minneapolis will include Bryan Nichols on keys, Vinnie Rose on guitar, Jeremy Boettcher on bass, and Miguel Hurtado on drums. I spoke with Raymond by phone in mid-March.

PLE: How old were you when you started playing a musical instrument?

I was ten, in fifth grade. I started on piano in second or third grade. I dropped it in sixth or seventh grade because I wanted to do more jazz things on piano and my piano teacher wasn’t cool with that. She didn’t have the background.

Had you heard a lot of jazz by then?

No. I wouldn’t say my parents were nonmusical, but we didn’t have music playing in the house all the time. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of music at home. It was more through the opportunities I was given early on, especially by Liz Jackson and Mike Whipkey, my elementary school band directors at Meadowbrook School in Golden Valley.

The more I think about it, the more in awe I am of the number of performing opportunities they got for us kids who were really into the music. They arranged for us to play at master classes at the University of Minnesota—a jazz thing, a brass quintet thing, all of these different things that gave us opportunities to play. When I look back, I realize how unique it was for elementary school band directors to be that gung ho. That had a huge impact.

In junior high, I started attending the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth jazz program directed by Scott Carter. That was huge for me, too. I did that for three or four summers in a row. One teacher who helped me a lot was Chris Thomson. I remember getting together a few times outside the regular camp day. He taught me different jazz theory things, random lessons. I remember that being formative. Fanning the flame.

Was there a moment when you knew this was the path you would take?

In the summer going into my junior year in high school, I attended the Minnesota All-State Jazz Camp. The director that year was Bob Baca, who would eventually be my teacher at Eau Claire. I went from practicing an hour a day to practicing three to five hours a day. That was a huge jump for me. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I knew that I wanted to be a musician, and I think it was largely because of him.

When did you know that you would eventually end up in New York?

I visited in high school, thinking I wanted to go there right away for my undergraduate work. I hated it. I was not a fan of NYC. I visited again in my senior year of college. Eau Claire has money set aside for students who want to go study with great musicians for a few days. I was here for a week and got to study with Terell Stafford. Once I was here, I thought—this isn’t as bad as I remember.

The following fall, I visited again to check out grad schools. By then I knew I wanted to be in New York. There’s something about the tradition of how jazz musicians pursue music and performing, how they grow as players and composers, that New York has and other places don’t. SUNY Purchase had a light enough graduate program that I only had to be at school three days a week. That allowed me to live in the city.

How did you meet Jon Faddis, and how did he come to be the producer of “Strength and Song”?

I studied with him at Purchase my first semester there. I was planning to audition for Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program. You have to submit an audio recording, and I brought in some of my compositions to show him. He said, “Let’s take you to Bennett Studios and record these four tunes. It’s on me.” I was really taken aback. Here was Jon Faddis, stepping out and doing something for me. We did a four- or six-hour session and he paid for everything. That was the start. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I could see that he wanted to invest in me as well. When it came time to record the CD, I thought I should at least ask him if he would produce it. He said yes. He even said he would do it pro bono, which totally blew my mind. I didn’t let that happen—I paid him something.

How did Faddis help to shape “Strength and Song”?

He offered suggestions wherever they were most needed, and only if he thought they would clearly make something more musical. He would comment on an arrangement, how long an introduction was, or “let’s take out the piano solo on this tune”—that sort of thing. It was his idea to use the mute on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “The Poor Blind Man.” I never would have thought of it, but it worked.

John Raymond by John Whiting
In one of your EPK videos, you define Strength as “firmness, stability, what sustains, what gives the ability to endure, what supports, what holds a person together.” You define Song as “the outward expression, the proclamation, the testimony of one’s strength.” And it all comes back to Isaiah 12:2: “For the Lord God is my strength and song.” Have you always been a person of faith?

I grew up Lutheran, going to a Lutheran church in St. Louis Park with my family. When I went to the All-State camp in high school, I met some people who lived in Eagan. I started connecting with them, playing music with them, and going to their youth group and different events at their churches. What I experienced there was very different from what I had experienced growing up. There was a sense of life and realness to their faith that I hadn’t known until then.

At the same time, things started happening with me musically. Both my music and my faith grew in a short amount of time. That continued into college, where I was active with the campus ministry at Eau Claire. I linked up with a church outside of Eau Claire and one of the choir directors became my mentor and best friend. He was one of my best men at my wedding; we became that close.

So I can look back and say yes, I grew up in a church, but what I experienced there wasn’t the biblical Christianity that I know now. I’m not making any judgments on people I grew up with, but I know that what I started to experience later was definitely different.

Did you know you were looking for this kind of experience?


Did you have issues with your parents?

No. They’re proud of me and interested that my faith has become such a central part of my life. I’ve had a handful of friends who have had problems.

I didn’t start out to make an overtly Christian jazz album. I want to make music. But for me, the “Strength and Song” title and all of this music is a statement about who I am musically, and I think it should also be a statement about who I am personally. Hiding that wouldn’t be honest. Every jazz musician goes for honesty. You hear so many musicians say that. It’s right on with the essence of the music.

The guitarist on your CD, Gilad Hekselman, is from Israel. Did you have any issues with him?

While doing the album together, we had some very civil conversations about faith and Christianity. I was able to dispel some pretty severe misconceptions he had about Christianity. I think that was helpful for him. He’s actually been great. I don’t run into people a whole lot who have severe issues playing with me, or issues in the after-the-gig-hang. This is true for ninety-nine percent of the people I interact with.

Knowing about your faith, it becomes obvious, or seems obvious, that most of your song titles have Biblical roots. Some examples: “The Rock.” There are rocks all over the Bible. “Ebenezer” is the name of a rock in the Old Testament. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” “Motivations of a Pharisee.” “Psalm 37.” What do your titles say about the music?

Actually, “Ebenezer” is [pianist] Javier Santiago’s tune, and one of my favorites. For the longest time, he wouldn’t give it a title. I would say, “Dude, you have to think of a title! I’m about to print this.” Then it came to me that the song resembled Ebenezer, a stone that served as a landmark for the Israelites, a symbol of a time when God proved his faithfulness to them and his protection of them. When they encountered future trials, they could look back on Ebenezer and not lose heart or be discouraged. I emailed Javi and told him what I was thinking and he said, “That’s cool.” On the CD, “Ebenezer” follows “The Rock,” which is very driving and intense. “Ebenezer” feels like the calm after the storm.

John Raymond by John Whiting

What are you saying with “Motivations of a Pharisee”?

I get a lot of questions about that title. It’s loaded, and it sounds loaded. I wrote that song the summer before we recorded. At the time, I was wrestling with certain things spiritually. I was reading the Gospels and learning more about the Pharisees and what they stood for. They were teachers and devout religious people, but strictly opposed to Jesus and what he was saying and doing. Why were they so opposed to him? In those days, the motivations were to be religious and follow the rules and in that way please God. But Jesus was saying, “You can’t please God by what you do, even if you do all the right things. Following the rules should be a response to how good God is to you and how loving God is to you.”

What I had learned all my life was I had to be a good person and do certain things because they were the Christian way. This goes back to my Lutheran roots. As I started learning more about what the Bible actually teaches, it became a joy to obey instead of a duty to obey. Instead of serving God because that’s what I should do, it’s something I want to do—because of his love for me, grace to me, and provision for me. So that tune happened as I was confronting my own pharisitical motivations.

“Psalm 37: Anthem” combines music with a discussion of the psalm with someone named Zac Martin. Who is Zac Martin? And what led you to end your first full-length CD in this way? At least one reviewer thinks your CD would have better without this.

Zac Martin is our pastor here at our church in Brooklyn. I had written a tune and titled it “Psalm 37” because I was challenged by that psalm, wrestling with it and trying to embrace what was going on in it. Every time I played the tune in a rehearsal or a show, we would treat it as a normal tune, and it never felt quite right to me. But I wanted the tune on the CD—it has a concise melody I like—and that’s where the idea of the dialogue happened.

I’m an instrumental musician. I want to let my music just be music, but at the same time, I want it to have words. Music alone can’t change someone in the way that God has changed me. What’s really changed me at a foundational level has been the Bible, which has words, and my relationships with other people, which involve discussion and conversation. So the idea of having words somewhere in my music is important to me.

What about working with a lyricist, or with hymns?

One of the things I’m doing right now is a hymns project with Zach Foty, a friend from high school who’s doing a lot of producing for a number of different artists in the Twin Cities. We’re in the very early stages. We don’t even have any arrangements yet. I’m thinking it will be loosely jazz—more rock, even indie rock. With some electronic music as well, which is one of Zach’s interests.

I’ve started playing in our worship team at our church in Brooklyn. One thing I can bring to the table is the idea of spontaneity and being in the moment, being able to worship in the moment. What would music like that look like? Not so much jazz arrangement as—jazz spirit?

What in particular were you (are you) trying to say with this collection of songs?

One of the goals jazz musicians have is to be honest in their music. For me, hiding where my music comes from and what influenced it would be silly. My faith is directly connected to what comes out of me musically. My EPK is a succinct way of saying what I want to say—musically and verbally.

Do you think “Strength and Song” represents who you are right now, or are you already moving beyond it?

I’m looking ahead. At the same time, I genuinely enjoy playing these songs. A lot of them are actually pretty simple. There’s nothing too crazy going on. The music is very accessible. People have mentioned that they’ll get these songs stuck in their head. That’s one of the strengths of these songs, and one reason I like playing them so much. Not to puff myself up, but I like the tunes. They’re fun to play, and they yield themselves to good moments. So I don’t mind playing them. At the same time, I’m working on new stuff, trying to envision what this might look like as it evolves. I like the instrumentation of the band right now. So in a sense, “Strength and Song” is who I am now. I think the concept will always remain with me. It’s broad enough. At the same time, I know it will evolve. It will look a lot different two albums from now.


Related: John Raymond "Strength and Song" EPK

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