Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ray Bryant

“Bryant is a major and often unsung player of bebop piano with blues and gospel never far away. … Noted for an imaginative and influential alteration of the basic 12-bar blues, Bryant is a distinctive pianist ….”
- Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD

“When Ray Bryant rose out of Philadelphia to national prominence in the 1950s, he was noted for his ability to meet the sophisticated harmonic demands of modern Jazz while retaining the muscle and swing of older form and the gospel music that surrounded him when he was a child. Any performance by Bryant is steeped in the blues, even when he’s not playing the blues.”
- Tray plate notes to Here’s Ray Bryant [OJCCD-826-2]

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

There are times when I like Jazz piano playing that is understated and implied.

While it’s wonderful to “hang-on-for-dear-life” while the late, Oscar Peterson burns his way through a fearsomely swift, three-minute version of Daahoud, sometimes a break from fast and furious is in order.

Many times, thoughtful and reflective or even light-hearted, bouncy and humoresque piano stylings form just the right mood.

One of my earliest recorded reminiscences of this approach was listening to an LP that contained pianist Ray Bryant’s interpretation of his original composition Cubano Chant, a tune that was to later become very popular with Latin-Jazz groups such as those led by vibist Cal Tjader and pianist George Shearing.

The version of Cubano Chant that we’ve used on the following video tribute to Ray is from a Vanguard LP that was issued under the leadership of legendary drummer Jo Jones.  Ray’s brother Tommy is on bass.

Some of the most descriptive writings about Ray are contained in Benny Green’s insert notes to the Here’s Ray Bryant which Ray originally recorded for Norman Granz’s Pablo Label in 1976 [2310-764]. The recording was issued as a CD on Concord’s Original Jazz Classic series in 1994 [OJCCD-826-2].

Here are some excerpts.

© -Benny Green, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The piano is not one of those instru­ments which calls for intimate bodily contact. As a general rule, bangers and thumpers in music are less closely involved with their instruments than suckers and blowers, for obvious reasons. This is not to say that thumpers are less passionately committed to what they are doing, only that there is something faintly impersonal about the mechanics of the way they do it. We have all encountered saxophonists and trumpeters so inextricably tangled up with their horns that it is sometimes difficult to decide where the man stops and the instrument starts; it is no wonder that such a musician is able to coax from the metal a tone which, being personal to him, is identifiable to us. A man would have to be deaf to mistake Ben Webster for Lester Young. But the phenom­enon of the individual tone is very much rarer among pianists, and I make the point because Ray Bryant, especially in his emer­gent days when his tone was still new to me, struck me as one of the few jazz pianists able to induce his own sound, as distinct from his own style, at the keyboard.

The listener will find a rare clarity of definition about Bryant's execution which makes his solo lines unusually exhilarating to listen to, even when he is creating a re­strained mood, ….

He has a sprightly inventive knack, an excellent technique, and the wit to compose original pieces which other pianists are often inclined to feature. In historical terms Bryant may be described as a mod­ernist, whatever that means, but although his early days were spent working with the lions of the new movement, especially Charlie Parker, it is significant that he lists among the pianists who mean the most to him Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson both of whose styles are built on classic principles.

Bryant was born in Philadelphia in 1931 and first began to make his mark in the mid-1950s. One of the most striking things about his playing, then and now, is its versatility. He can switch with apparent ease to and from the old orthodoxies of dominant-to-tonic resolution, and can also subordinate himself to the accompanist's role when re­quired. I think his solo playing reflects this adaptability, for he is a most catholic per­former, using elements of several approaches to jazz piano which he fuses into a style of his own. …

A Fats Waller lover would be able to identify with … [his playing], and yet a modernist could never fail to be impressed, and moved, by Bryant's command and sophistication. Jazz today is in sore need of such artists, who can assim­ilate fresh approaches without destroying the unity of their own music.”

If you like your Jazz piano played at a pace and in a manner that allows you to simmer and savor it, then what Ray Bryant serves up may be just right for you.