Wednesday, September 10, 2014

John Raymond talks about intensity, disappointment, and his new Roots Trio

John Raymond by John Rogers
As I write this, I’m listening to jazz trumpeter/composer John Raymond’s next CD, a not-yet-released collection of 10 tracks recorded earlier this year with the acclaimed pianist Dan Tepfer, the in-demand bassist Joe Martin, and legendary drummer Billy Hart.

It’s a group of musicians the Minnesota native and Eau Claire grad would not be recording with if he hadn’t moved to New York in 2009, hit the ground running, and been dead serious about certain things: learning, listening, finding mentors, forming relationships, and evolving as a musician and as a human being.

He’s very good at all of those. His first CD, “Strength and Song,” came out in 2012, a solid debut. The new one, tentatively titled (for now) “Foreign Territory” after the first track, is still his music, still his presence and clear, radiant tone, but better. Stronger, smarter, more soaring and swinging.

Raymond returns to the Twin Cities this weekend with his New York-based Roots Trio for a concert and another recording session. The trio features Raymond on flugelhorn, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, and drummer Colin Stranahan. They’ll play Saturday at Studio Z, the St. Paul listening room run by Zeitgeist, the new music chamber ensemble.

We spoke when he was here in July, and before then in January (and also in March 2012, soon after the release of “Strength and Song”). In conversation, he’s open and direct, confident in his abilities but without arrogance or attitude. This piece combines parts of our two most recent exchanges. I asked the questions, but he gave the answers, so I’ll get out of the way.

On intensity

JR: What I’ve realized in New York is that the intensity level is always there. People play with so much intensity all the time that it took me a little bit to get on that plane. Now that I’m there, now that I realize what that feels like, I hate anything that doesn’t feel like that … The music is all that we as musicians have. If you’re not going to put 100% into it, why do it? I don’t want to hear something that lacks that intensity, that commitment.

There’s a certain rhythmic intensity that has to happen in jazz. A certain melodic intensity. And harmonic intensity. After that, it’s all a personal stand … You just want to do something that’s honest to you. What’s honest to me now looks different than it did three years ago. And I have to honor that. If I’m committed to that, it doesn’t matter what it sounds like, it’s going to work.

On learning to lead

In my first couple years in New York, I was doing a lot of reacting. I would be in these musical situations, playing with people a lot better than me, and thinking I wanted everybody to be on an equal playing field – for everybody to have a say in what was happening in a given musical moment. I realize now that when I’m the soloist, I direct where the music goes. As a bandleader, I have to direct and lead. I’ve always felt like a capable leader, I’ve always realized I have those skills, but now I have the tools to lead more fluidly and effectively.

On embracing the unknown

The people I love to make music with are people who push me into the unknown. I’ll go into something where I don’t know what’s happening or what’s going to happen and embrace it. My motto recently has been, “Just jump off the cliff. Just go.”

One of the big things I realized musically is that I was trying to control all of these things – my sound, improvising, the arc of a solo I would take, or the arc of a whole song. I wanted so much control! Then I saw that the people who are most inspiring to me would abandon that control and go with something spontaneous and unknown. That, to me, has been the thrill. I’ve gotten into not knowing what’s going to happen next. At first, that was kind of terrifying. But now I’m okay with it. The unknown is one of the most exciting parts about jazz.

On being himself

I’ve been getting together off-and-on with Matt Merewitz of Fully Altered Media. He’s an important publicist on the jazz scene, and I felt that he would tell me honestly and bluntly what he thought about me … One thing he told me right at the beginning was, “You need to stop trying to be like Ambrose [Akinmusire]. You need to think about who you are as a white, Minnesotan, Christian jazz musician.”

There was something about the white music/black music thing that made sense to me. A voice in my head said “Stop trying to be who you’re not. Be who you are. You’re a Minnesotan white dude who grew up in a Lutheran church.” So, what does that mean for me? What does that look like? It’s changing how I’m playing, and how I try to improvise.

When I started getting into Lee Konitz, I saw that Lee is not trying to be like anybody else. He never has. He doesn’t care anything about what anybody else thinks.

On playing the tune

I know what aspects I bring to the music, in terms of improvisation. I know I’m not a super-free player like Taylor Ho Bynum. I’ve been bred to have a really great sound, so in that way, I’m going to be different. I know that I think about music in a certain way. I want people to hear that I understand the tradition, because I do. So some of the things I’ve told myself over the last couple of years are, “Stop playing to try to impress people. Be okay with just playing the tune, playing the changes, playing something that is melodically really great.” What makes Lee Konitz so great is that he plays a lot of amazing stuff, but it’s not like he’s reinventing harmony or melody.

John McNeil [trumpeter and producer of Raymond’s new CD] has harped on me to get more of a vocal quality in my sound and how I play. The people we tend to connect most with as improvisers have a primal vocal quality. The music sings to you.

On who he’d like to work with someday

I desperately want to one day make a record with Dave King. To me, he’s a drummer who’s the perfect combination of everything. Maybe it’s because I’m from [the Twin Cities] and there’s a certain thing about that, but when I saw him at the Vanguard with Billy Carrothers and Billy Peterson, it was incredible. I stayed for both sets. I was going to go somewhere else after the first set, but I said to myself, “You’re not going anywhere.”

I’d kill to work with Brian Blade. Brian Blade and Dave King are two people I would love to record with at some point in my life.

On how his new Roots Trio came together

Last year, I ended up doing two different recordings. Both were with Gilad, and ever since we recorded “Strength and Song” he was always my first-call guy. There’s some kind of connection I feel with him – the way he makes music, and our relationship. There’s something there that I really want to keep. So I pared it down to a quartet – Gilad and I and a bass and drums. We recorded two different times with different musicians, and both of those times I played only flugelhorn.

Both of those recordings didn’t turn out how I wanted them to. There was just something about them that didn’t feel right.

For a while, I’d been thinking about doing a project with just a trio, with a different instrumentation – something a little fresher, something I’m not used to hearing or feeling. I emailed the guy who books The Bar Next Door in New York, which is a trio venue with no piano. I was just trying to get a gig, and thinking as I’m writing the email that I should propose a gig with me and guitar and drums. The guy knows Gilad really well, and Gilad plays there a lot. We ended up booking a gig. I had thought about Colin, but he couldn’t make that one, so Eric Doob, who’s another great drummer in New York, ended up doing it.

Then I thought, let’s just scrap the whole originals thing. Let’s play songs that people are familiar with, whether that’s folk songs or hymns or indie rock tunes, and incorporate some standards in there, too. I spent a while getting the music together, working out certain arrangements, but I didn’t work out too much. I just wanted to throw it at people. And we did the gig, and it was a really special night of music, and I could feel it, and Gilad felt it, too.

Part of the heartbeat of jazz is the joy that comes from the spontaneity. I have known that intellectually for a while, but after the Roots trio gigs and playing with Billy (Hart), it has come full circle. Something I’m telling myself a lot these days is, “Just make it feel good. Have fun with it and be happy about the music you make.” I notice a difference in how I feel and how everybody else reacts.

On the flugelhorn-guitar combination

I’ve transitioned to only playing flugelhorn with the trio. I think it sounds great with guitar. That comes out of the Art Farmer/Jim Hall influence. Farmer is one of the only people who’s known for playing mainly flugelhorn. I got a new flugelhorn, and there’s something about it and just playing flugel in general that has brought out a voice in me that I didn’t have playing trumpet.

The Art Farmer/Jim Hall groove inspired the whole pairing, and now I’m putting it in a different context, which is kind of cool.

On what the Roots Trio will record

We’ll be doing an arrangement of “This Land Is Your Land,” and an arrangement of “Blackbird,” the Paul McCartney tune. With a jazz sensibility. The nature of the instrumentation, specifically flugelhorn and guitar, will lend a rootsy feel to things, for lack of a better word, so I’m not as concerned about squeezing the jazz out of it.

We’re doing an arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel. An original, “Thaddeus,” in dedication to Thad Jones, based on his song “Three and One,” so it’s a contrafact. We’ll do a couple original songs of mine. Probably a Chris Morrissey tune, “Minor Silverstein,” off his “North Hero” record. An arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” an arrangement of “Be Still My Soul,” and an arrangement of the hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which most people have probably heard on the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” A Thom Yorke song that [Twin Cities saxophonist] Chris Thomson introduced to me long ago that always stuck with me.

I think that’s it – 12 or 13 songs. I’m trying to plan compositionally and be smart – use my intellect in a good way to keep things interesting and fresh, but also leave a lot of space to let the musicians do their thing. That’s one of the strengths of the band.

On his disappointment after “Strength and Song,” and what has changed since then

When I put out “Strength and Song” [in 2012], it was like – okay, I’ve got a record now. I’m going to try to play all these festivals. I’m going to get an agent and play all these clubs. I was so gung-ho to make a big splash. But I didn’t have much success. It definitely opened a lot of doors, but it didn’t have the impact I was hoping it would.

That was disappointing, and hard to go through. I didn’t get a DownBeat review or a JazzTimes review. I didn’t get many good reviews from notable press. I was upset about that at first, that I didn’t get those reviews.

Then I had a conversation with the sax player John Ellis. He lives pretty close to me, and we’ve gotten together a few times for sessions or seeing each other at gigs. I think we were riding the train home from some gig together, talking about a whole bunch of things, and I was asking about the business side of music – we were going down that road – and his thoughts on certain things. At one point he said to me, “Remember that ultimately it’s not about any of that. It’s about the music. If you put 100% of your energy into making your music the most honest and high-level you possibly can, everything else will take care of itself.”

That conversation has stuck with me. Instead of thinking “I should’ve gotten this review” or “I should’ve done this,” or “those people should’ve liked the record” or whatever, just focus on the music. I’ve learned so much about how to take care of the music, and how to invest the heart and soul of my energy into that. Nothing has happened yet with the record with Billy, and we haven’t even recorded yet with Gilad and Colin, but I can already sense that things are very different from me than they were three years ago.

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

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