Sunday, January 24, 2016

John Raymond talks about Real Feels, lessons learned from Billy Hart, and being a new dad

John Raymond by Josh Goleman
Brooklyn-based jazz trumpeter John Raymond is a frequent visitor to the Midwest. He grew up in Minneapolis, where his family still lives, and went to college in Eau Claire. He returns to see his family, gig with old friends and, more recently, play CD release shows: for “Strength and Song” in 2012, “Foreign Territory” in 2015 and now “John Raymond and Real Feels,” his latest, available in February.

For “Real Feels,” Raymond organized – on his own – an ambitious two-part touring schedule of 26 performances and master classes in 22 cities on 22 days, beginning Jan. 21 in Indianapolis and ending Feb. 26 in Akron, OH, after swings through the Midwest and the West. On Saturday, Jan. 23, “Real Feels” came to Vieux Carre in St. Paul.

The self-released “Strength and Song” was Raymond’s first album, recorded as the John Raymond Project with Gerald Clayton on piano, Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Tim Green on alto sax, Raviv Markovitz on bass and Cory Cox on drums. It’s mostly original compositions, a solid introduction to his songwriting skills and distinctive tone.

For “Foreign Territory,” recorded with pianist Dan Tepfer, bassist Joe Martin and legendary drummer Billy Hart and released by Fresh Sound, Raymond re-imagined and transformed familiar standards, basing “What Do You Hear?” on “I Hear a Rhapsody” and “Deeper” on “How Deep Is the Ocean?” He added some originals, including the strong title track, and let Hart, Tepfer and Martin do their thing on “Hart of the Matter,” a brief free improvisation captured in the studio. “Foreign Territory” was a Downbeat editor’s pick and earned high praise from Nate Chinen of the New York Times, both big deals for a young jazz musician. Raymond won a 2015 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award from ASCAP for “Deeper.”

“John Raymond and Real Feels,” on the Twin Cities-based collective label Shifting Paradigm, is a bassless trio with Raymond on flugelhorn, Hekselman on guitar and Colin Stranahan on drums, playing some very familiar tunes: “Amazing Grace,” “Scarborough Fair,” “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s simpler, looser and more relaxed than “Strength and Song” or “Foreign Territory.” Raymond, Hekselman and Stranahan – then called the Roots Trio – recorded it in Minneapolis soon after playing a concert in St. Paul in Sept. 2014. 

“Real Feels” could have come out in fall 2015, but Hekselman was on the road with his fifth album as leader, “Homes,” Stranahan was busy and it seemed best to wait. So though the new CD is technically not brand new, it feels like a new direction. Stripped down and agile. Still jazz, but other things, too. Wide open.

In live performance before a full house at Vieux Carre – SRO in the first set – the trio took already fine music and kicked it up several notches, playing with infectious joy and the kind of skill that makes you glad to be there in person. This is a very good band, a band of brothers. Just before the final tune of the night, which no one actually called, Raymond said, “That’s the nice thing about this band. You can just do something, and something happens.”

Raymond and I have formed the habit of meeting for long, rangy conversations once or twice a year, catching up on where he’s been, looking ahead to where he’s going, finding out where his head is at and also, often, his heart. Our most recent talk was in Minneapolis on Dec. 29, just before the turn of the year.

PLE: You were the Roots Trio when you went into the studio to record this music, and now you’re Real Feels. What happened?

JR: Band name change. Big moment. I decided to change it partly of my own volition, and partly because the other guys were saying, “You know, this kind of sounds too much like The Roots.” Or “roots music.” Which to some extent it is, for me, but not in the way that maybe it’s thought of. And I felt like “trio” made it sound too jazzy.

Turns out that band names are hard to come up with. I spent three or four weeks making list after list. Then suddenly I thought – Real Feels. I looked back and had actually written that down on one of my first lists.

What does Real Feels mean to you?

When I think about playing with this band, and the band itself, it feels very authentic to who I am, and it feels very real. It helps that it’s a trio, because a trio can function in a different capacity than a larger group. It’s smaller, more intimate. There’s a different sense of communication going on. I feel like when we play for audiences, that’s a huge selling point. People come away saying, “Wow, we can really connect to this band.” A lot of people have told me they don’t really like jazz, but they love this band.

Real Feels: Colin Stranahan, John Raymond, Gilad Hekselman
Photo by Josh Goleman

Many people have said they don’t like jazz without knowing what they’re talking about.

Yes, and that’s fine, but it meant something to me. It was like – okay, I must be doing something that’s connecting with them. For me, with this band and this music, there’s a continued feeling of no pretense. It’s just who I am. It’s a much more relaxed version of myself.

The “Foreign Territory” version of myself is more searching and introspective. But I’m thinking about doing another record with Billy and Dan and Joe. I did a really short tour with that band in September and it was awesome. A life-changing experience. Three days with Billy! I came out of it very different.

Different how?

There’ve been times when I’ve played with Billy and felt like he was playing too loud for what I wanted, or pushing me in directions I might not have wanted to go. I always kind of felt like he wasn’t listening. We had a couple conversations during the tour that opened my eyes to his process.

He told me about a time when he talked with Tony Williams. Billy asked Tony if Miles [Davis] had ever told him anything specific to do, during the second great quintet. Tony said the only thing Miles ever said was “Keep me up there.”

Billy took that with him. He said that every trumpet player he’s ever played with more or less wanted the same thing.

He said that and left it with me, and I had to process it and chew on it. He didn’t explain it at the time.

I asked him about it toward the end of the tour. He said it didn’t mean volume or range or whatever. It meant intensity. Billy knows that a trumpet player has to bring a different intensity level than everybody else because that’s what the trumpet demands.

He said that even when he played with Art Farmer – who I love and asked him about a lot when we were playing together – Art would call tempos that Billy could hardly play, they were so fast. Those were symbols, or signals, of the intensity of Art’s playing.

Billy also talked about how all trumpet players came out of the Big Band tradition. That’s why they’re as strong and intense as they are. I told Billy that I had a thorough education in playing with big bands. He said to me, “You need to go back and check that out, and deal with that a little more.” That got me thinking, “Do I play differently in a big band than I do in my quartet?” And the answer was yes.

When I talked to him about that, he said it wasn’t a volume thing, but a projection thing. “You have to assert yourself,” he said. He told me about playing a gig with Ron Carter. Ron came up to him on a set break and said, “Billy, I can’t hear your opinion.”

Billy let me process that and chew on it, and I took it to mean that I need to be more assertive with my own voice and what I really want to say.

The last night of the tour – the night before had been disappointing, at least in my own mind – I decided to put it all out on the table. I didn’t care what anybody thought, and I don’t even know what was going through my head, but it was clearly the best the band had every played together, and I’m convinced it was because I was more assertive than I had ever been. And Billy played totally differently. As soon as he felt that I was asserting myself, he followed me instead of pushing me.

I think when I felt like he was playing too loud and pushing me, he was actually just trying to get me to voice my opinion. He was saying, “Come on! Be assertive! You gotta come up to here! Here’s the intensity level!”

That was a life-changing night. I came away feeling like, “Okay, I know I have it in me now. I can play like this.” So now I just have to do it all the time.

Is it hard?

It’s hard for me because I thrive when I feel comfortable, whether that’s with somebody else in a conversation or on the bandstand. I don’t like being in situations that feel hostile or uneasy. That’s something I’ve had to work through, because I’ve realized I have to create my own comfort, no matter what the situation.

I feel like there’s a voice in me now saying, in a stronger way than ever before, “Be yourself. Do your thing. Don’t wait on anybody else, don’t worry about anybody else. To some extent, don’t even listen.” I’m obviously listening and wanting to communicate with the musicians and the people I’m around, but I can’t let that be the deciding factor.

When you’re playing in someone else’s band – with Orrin Evans and his Captain Black Big Band, for example – don’t you run the risk of overstepping?

With Orrin, it’s unique because he wants that. He encourages it. We have this weekly Monday-night thing at Smoke Jazz Club, and we’ll do largely the same songs every week in different order, maybe throw in some curveballs we haven’t done for a couple of weeks. Even if it’s expected that a song will start out with a certain intro, or a certain person is going to solo, there have been times since this tour when I have felt so strongly I have to play – I want to play right now – that I’ll just start taking an intro. Orrin will be like, “Okay, you got it.” Everybody else is cool with it, too.

You’ve been playing with a lot of interesting people: Orrin Evans, Ethan Iverson, Sullivan Fortner. When Colin Stranahan was unavailable for some of the trio dates, Rudy Royston stepped in.

Rudy told me a story about playing with Ron Miles. I’ve never met Ron Miles, but I love Ron Miles. Ron was one of Rudy’s mentors growing up, and they would do all sorts of gigs together. Rudy remembers doing a gig at a country club, some private event where Ron was playing the most avant-garde, out stuff. At first Rudy thought – what’s happening? The thing he told me is that Ron has always done his own music in his own way.

In recordings I’ve heard, I can sense that here’s someone who has a strong musical vision, and is also a warm, kind, lovely person. I really want to meet him. In February, Real Feels is going to Denver – that’s where Colin is from – and we’re doing a clinic at Ron’s school. I’m excited.

In an interview with Revive, you said this about Real Feels: “The music we play all ties back to my roots as a simple, faith-centered Midwesterner.” I get the “faith-centered Midwesterner,” but “simple”? 

I’m seeing “simple” as maybe in comparison to the people I’m around in New York. And Midwestern life is so much simpler than New York life.

Are you still struggling with living in New York?

Yeah, a little bit. Especially now with [baby daughter] Nora. [Wife] Dani and I both love the Midwest, and we love Minneapolis. But I also love Brooklyn and where I’m at and being around the people and things I’m around. There are definitely trade-offs.

When I come home for vacation – granted, it’s vacation – life is simple here. That’s what Real Feels feels like to me. It brings out that part of my personality that’s comfortable, relaxed, and simple. I’m not distracted by the hustle and bustle of the industry and the city, the press and labels. That’s how I feel coming home. Not necessarily that I’m a simple individual.

With Real Feels, we’re pushing the music. But it’s not an urgent push. It’s more like – let’s take it here. It’s more of a joyous surprise than a search, search, dig, dig. I guess the ambitious part of me comes out in the “Foreign Territory” music, and my domesticated fatherhood comes out in Real Feels. Something like that.

You’re enjoying being a dad?

Love it. It’s great. The best! It helps when you have a really great, sweet little daughter. She’s been the best baby and she’s cute as heck.

I beam when I talk about her. Everybody says that. I go into full-on dad mode.

What are your hopes and expectations for 2016?

First, we’re doing a couple of tours. I’ve basically done all of the work myself, which has been incredibly strenuous with a child. It was definitely overambitious, and it has ground me down and worn me out.

While I’m excited to have done it and I think it’ll be great for me and the band, I realize I can’t do things like that and have a sense of saneness and normalcy and be a good dad and a good musician. It took too much time and energy. A lot of hours, details, and organizing, contacting a lot of venues and a lot of schools. I’m trying to branch out into other parts of the country where I haven’t been. We’re playing at Dazzle in Denver, the Blue Whale in Los Angeles and the Royal Room in Seattle.

I bought a whole bunch of Real Feels merch to sell. That’s a totally new thing, and I’m taking a risk with it, but I’m excited to see what happens, especially with this band, because I think this is the kind of music where people will be into the merch thing.

I’ve taken a lot of risks in 2015 and done a lot of stuff. I feel like 2016 is going to be a year when I’m recalibrating. I don’t think I’ll spend as much time or effort booking big-scale things like tours because I want more time for the music. 2015 was a business experimentation year. In 2016, I want to keep advancing the music, making smarter choices now that I have that experience and have taken those risks.

What about your teaching?

I teach [at the United Nations International School] three days a week. Twenty-three students, mostly private lessons, some paired lessons. I have the middle school jazz band and a class of beginning fifth-grade trumpet players.

For a long time, I wanted teaching to be the side thing, but I’ve realized that teaching is part of my identity. I want it to be more of a main thing, but not lack depth and ambition with music, performing, writing and recording. I’ve realized in the past six months how much I love teaching. The reason why is the connection with the students, beyond music. My role is only half to teach them music. The other half is to be a figure in their lives who can impact them and shape how they see the world, how they see themselves. Teaching them what hard work looks like, and what discipline looks like. I think that’s the father in me coming out.

Teaching is more rewarding to me sometimes than playing out. So I think 2016 will be more of a year of being okay with that and maybe performing a little less. And when I am performing, doing that with more depth and assertiveness.

Who inspires you these days?

Dave Douglas. Here’s a guy who admits that in his first five years in New York, he wasn’t doing well and wasn’t getting called. I’m still not getting many calls to be a side man, which has been hard. Dave kept doing his own thing, and now he is where he is today.

I’ve gotten to know Jon Irabagon. I think he’s one of the most fascinating musicians on the scene – all the stuff he does with different bands. He’s in Dave’s band, and Mostly Other People Do the Killing, and he does his own stuff.

After that tour with Billy, Dan and Joe in September, I felt a strong sense that I need to go back and do some homework with certain things, holes in my playing. I got so into Lee Konitz, and I knew he was a [Lennie] Tristano man, but I’d never really checked out Tristano. So I started to get into Tristano and I’ve been obsessed with his order and melodicism. I’ve been digging in on a deeper level and trying to get that into my playing.

I’m also really into Mark Turner. I transcribed a Mark Turner solo I really wanted to check out, on a blues. I’ve been studying it, how he’s thinking about navigating certain chord changes, certain parts of the form and phrasing. Turner got hooked on Warren Marsh, who was a Tristano disciple.

One of my other goals – I’ve said this for a year now – is to get a lesson or two with Lee Konitz. And Mark Turner.

What happens in a lesson with someone like Lee Konitz or Mark Turner?

I don’t know! I’m curious. I’ve heard that lessons with Lee are a lot of singing and playing. And going back and listening to Lester Young. With Lee, a lesson could last a few hours. With Mark, I’ll bet it will last an hour. I literally live a block away from Mark, so it’s silly I haven’t contacted him up to now. I want to pick his brain about how he adapted Tristano.

I think Mark is incredible. He’s one of those people who balances – Billy even said this – the Coltrane virtuosity on the horn and a lyrical, melodic sense.

Along with becoming a father, what was the high point of the year for you?

I don’t think it was one moment, but a gradual thing of becoming more comfortable in my own skin. Becoming a father helped that, because it made me realize on a logistical level that I don’t have time for certain things anymore. It prioritizes things. It also made me play music way better. It’s just more sacred to me now.

You’ve mentioned wanting to be more melodic.

We visited Nashville this summer – me and Dani and Nora – because they had an exhibit on Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. It was a cool experience for me because I felt it was very much along the lines of what I’m into with Real Feels.

Are you drawn to country music?

I’m drawn to it in the sense that it’s about storytelling. White American music traces back to country music, simple folk songs that tell stories about a time, a place, a person or whatever. I’ve been drawn to that, trying to communicate that as an improviser, trying to tell a story without words that gets across the same kind of feeling that a Johnny Cash song does, or a Bob Dylan song.

When I think about what I can contribute to music, I feel like it’s going to be down that road, in an instrumental, lyricless way. I’m going to spend a lot more time this year composing. I haven’t composed much this year. One way I can make my voice unique, assert myself more and grow is through my compositional voice.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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