Tim Ray Trio - WINDOWS
Check out Tim Ray’s first jazz trio recording on the Whaling City Sound label, featuring bassist John Lockwood and drummer Mark Walker. This trio has performed and recorded together for many years in the New England area, often times backing up saxophonists Phil Woods and Greg Abate. But this new disc demonstrates the high level of artistry and musical interaction that they can achieve when left to their own devices.
These tracks are primarily a collection of trio music composed and performed by some of the greats in piano jazz. Well-known songs penned by Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver highlight this disc. But Tim’s innovative arrangements of Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light”, Monk’s “Monk’s Dream” and Chick Corea’s “Windows” showcase this trio’s strengths and abilities to the fullest. Other highlights include Tim’s originals “DE-Train” and “Joy”, Lockwood’s composition “12 by 7” and fun arrangements of the standard “Star Eyes” and Lyle Lovett’s “I’ve Been to Memphis”.
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Tim Ray Trio - Windows: Liner Notes
Those of us who love music all started somewhere. Maybe it wasn’t the first thing we heard, or the most famous, but each of us can recall a performance or set of performances that turned a casual interest into a lifelong passion. For pianist Tim Ray, the starting point was found in the Phoenix Public Library.
“I grew up in a household of primarily country music and traditional German songs, and was not introduced to jazz until I started playing in my high school’s big band,” Ray explains. “The bandleader suggested checking out some jazz pianists, so I went to the library and the first record I came across was an Atlantic reissue of trio music by Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner. [The 1976 album, with its striking Milton Glaser cover rendering of four grand pianos, simply bears the names of the four pianists as its title.] This LP sent me on a path that I have never turned away from.”
That epiphany is the motivating factor behind Ray’s new collection. “Of course I have studied and enjoyed each of them much more fully in the years since, and soon my tastes expanded to the point where I could also appreciate other piano greats like Monk, Ellington, Horace Silver and Bill Evans. So the central idea of this disc is to acknowledge some of these pianists who were my early influences, and to recapture this feeling of being introduced to great trio music.”
Two decades have passed since Ideas & Opinions, Ray’s debut disc and only album to date in the standard piano trio context. He admits that the piano/bass/drum setup is “a tradition you can’t argue against, and the perfect setting to foster communications”; but professional choices took him away from the format. Around the time his first recording was released, Ray left the anchor of a teaching position at Berklee College and seats in a variety of Boston-area ensembles to be, as he describes it, “the guy who went out on the road.” For more than a decade, he provided support for vocalists Lyle Lovett (recalled here on one track), Jane Siberry and others. “The experience of being an accompanist taught me so much about how to learn a melody, how to honor it yet still interpret it,” he recalls. “I wasn’t into that when I was 19, and I’m still surprised when some of my young piano students today say that they want to work on vocal accompaniment.”
Yet the point arrived when, from an artistic standpoint, all of the travel provided diminishing returns. “The road and playing the same tunes night after night got tiresome,” Ray says, “so I let that go about six or eight years ago, started teaching at Berklee again, and became more local by choice.” One result was a greater focus on Tre Corda, the innovative chamber jazz collective that also includes trumpeter Greg Hopkins and cellist Eugene Friesen. Putting a more conventional trio together took some time.
“As much as I love trio playing,” Ray explains, “so much has to do with who you play with, and John Lockwood and Mark Walker are looking to communicate in the same way that I am. One of the first times we played together was on a three-baritone sax date that Greg Abate put together to feature himself, Allan Chase and Gary Smulyan, so Greg is really responsible for the genesis of the trio.” The unit has become Abate’s go-to rhythm section, and can be heard on his Whaling City Sounds discs Motif and Kindred Spirits Live at Chan’s. The latter, which also features the late Phil Woods, includes a trio performance of “Speak Low” that provided the first example of the trio’s strength sans saxes.
After the emphasis that Tre Corda places on original compositions, Ray found the programming of this collection particularly challenging. “It took the longest time to pick tunes to represent each pianist-composer,” he admits. “Each has his own approach to melody, harmony and rhythm; and while, over time, I may have gravitated to one more than another, together they provide the foundation for my own approach.”
“Windows,” which composer Chick Corea introduced on a 1966 recording by Hubert Laws and reprised a year later on the definitive version with Stan Getz, receives a darker initial spin here through Ray’s unaccompanied introduction. Once the waltz tempo arrives, the attentiveness of the trio members is on full display, with harmonic and rhythmic connections stretched but never severed. Given his plan to use the album as a window into his own development, the piece became an ideal title track.
Herbie Hancock composed “Toys” for his 1968 sextet album Speak Like a Child, where the supporting blend of flugelhorn, bass trombone and alto flute deepened the impressionistic cast of the melody. Ray’s interpretation retains the mystery of the theme in a reading that simmers rather than boils. Lockwood adds striking angles in his bass solo, while Ray and Walker leaven the coda with whimsy.
“Dolphin Dance” from the classic 1965 album Maiden Voyage, is one of Hancock’s most frequently covered pieces. Where most choose to sustain the medium-tempo groove of the original, Ray and company turn it into a rhapsodic adventure that places new focus on the beautiful melody and features Lockwood’s arco bass.
Keith Jarrett, who Ray acknowledges as one of his strongest ongoing influences, is represented by “So Tender,” which the composer introduced on a 1972 Airto Moreira album and then revisited 11 years later on the first recording session by his Standards Trio. Ray takes Jarrett’s title to heart, focusing on the melody’s inherent lyricism and the floating Latin beat of Walker’s drums.
Rhythmic surprise is at the heart of two tracks that bow to the Duke Ellington legacy. We don’t expect “I’m Beginning to See the Light” to strut, as it does here, yet the trio give this already-saucy paean to new love a spin perfectly in keeping with its original vibe. And “DE-Train,” Ray’s reconfiguration of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” adds bumps and hairpin turns to this most familiar subway journey. No one loses his footing, however, and after two choruses for Walker’s drums, the trio arrives at its destination intact.
The skips in the theme chorus of “Monk’s Dream” are an inspired way to honor this most singular of jazz composers, and a far cry from the rote dissonances that many pianists apply when entering Monk’s terrain. The arrangement sports a Latin groove that inspires some of the most articulate playing on the date by all three members of the trio.
Horace Silver’s “Peace,” a true jazz hymn, is so steeped in the aura of its title that it almost defies modification. Ray seizes the mood yet creates one of his most intense improvisations: harmonically astute while never abandoning the consoling warmth of the melody.
One composition more associated with the saxophone than the piano is the standard “Star Eyes,” and this staple from the Charlie Parker canon is rehabbed with a clever introductory riff and turn-left harmonic substitutions. Ray is quick to note his partners’ contributions to this track. “This is really more Lockwood’s arrangement than my own,” he confesses, “and recording with Mark Walker meant I had to do something overtly Latin.” The opening and closing vamp made famous by Bird is recast in 10/8 to underpin Walker’s crackling solo.
Ray recalls his road years with Lyle Lovett’s “I’ve Been to Memphis.” He begins very much in the mood of the original, and then switches gears about halfway along with a harmonic recasting of the material. When the chorus returns, traces of the new mood remain before Ray’s ingenious summary.
The program is completed by two original compositions. If only in its title, Lockwood’s “12 x 7” adds a McCoy Tyner connection by recalling Tyner’s “Four by Five.” Both tunes play rhythmic tricks in their themes, but Lockwood’s blues sustains the conceit by retaining the odd meter for sure-footed improvisations by all members.
The graceful “Joy” is by Ray. “Sometimes I write songs for people, either as dedications or to mark special events,” he explains, “and my partner pointed out that I had never written her a song. We gave each other a chiming antique clock for our 25th anniversary, and I also decided to give her this song as something extra. The 25 “chimes” at the end of the piece are a reflection of our 25 years of marriage.” A composition titled “Joy” (like one titled “Peace”) should reflect a universally understood emotion with clarity and directness, and Ray (like Horace Silver) easily passes that test.
The formation of a Tim Ray trio, like the arrival of a new Tim Ray trio album, has been long overdue. With a pair of most compatible partners, Ray has fashioned a unit and a program that is full of deep melody, spry rhythms and subtle surprises. It delivers what is to be expected when windows are open – a breath of fresh musical air. -Bob Blumenthal