Saturday, May 16, 2020

Tom Ranier - Something Old and Something New - The Evolution of a Jazz Musician

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Tom Ranier is a truly gifted multi-talented musician. His work is superb throughout … writing liner notes for this album has been a study for me in how many ways I can say - SUPERB.”
- Buddy DeFranco, clarinetist, liner notes to "In The Still of the Night"

By the mid-1970s I had moved away from music in a professional capacity, but I maintained friendships with many of the musicians from my working days, one of whom was the late vibraphonist Dave Pike.

Dave and I went to the same high school [although he was a year ahead of me] and I played drums in one of his early groups, a trio with bassist Ben Tucker.

In the 1970s, I was still getting residual checks and would drop by the musicians union on Vine Street in Hollywood, CA to pick these up and after doing so I made the always delightful stop across the street to visit the nice people who ran the Professional Drum Shop.

On one such occasion I ran into Dave who was scoping out some new mallets. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, I asked him what was going on and he mentioned that he had a gig with his quintet at a place called Hungry Joe’s on Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, CA.

It was about a 40 mile schlepp from my place, but Dave kept raving about the group so much that I promised him I would make it down over the weekend. 

Which I did; and am I glad because that’s when I heard Tom Ranier play piano and he completely blew me away.

The late Jazz master, pianist George Shearing once said about Jazz: “The hardest thing about this music is getting it from the head to the hands.” Well, listening to Tom play that night, you might have thought that George had made up that problem as it certainly didn’t pertain to Mr. Ranier.

Tom just knocked out everybody - including his own bandmates - with his fluid and inspired improvisation. 

The other thing that impressed me about Tom was his awareness as an accompanist: he was listening closely to what the other musicians were doing during their solos and he kept feeding them just what they needed in terms of chords, chord substitutions, rhythmic riffs and vamps, etc. Sometimes he had the good sense to just lay out [not play behind a soloist] rather than interfere with what was going on in the music 

His accompaniment wasn’t mindless or insensitive. It was perfectly suited to what the other players needed to help make their solos happen. Tom was a continual presence in the music - a persistent force to help keep things together and/or moving - especially since Dave could be a very flamboyant player who also had [the distracting to some] habit of singing out his vibe solos simultaneously. 

The other members of the band that night were Ron Eschete on guitar, Luther Hughes on bass and Ted Hawke on drums.

Reflecting on his time in Dave’s band at Hungry Joe’s from 1974-77, Tom got a big grin on his face and said: “Bebop five nights a week!” And in a message to me he wrote: “And on Monday nights they had a big band in - The Orange County Rhythm Machine.” Hungry Joe’s may have had “lousy drinks and cheap food,” but they were rich in Jazz.

Since that time, Tom has been a fixture on the music scene in Los Angeles on piano both as a performing artist and as a studio musician bringing to the latter the added benefit of being a first-rate clarinetist as well as a saxophone player.

There’s a very nice write-up about Tom’s background and his career in music and in music education, including excerpts from his interviews for the Los Angeles Times, on Wikipedia which you can access by going here. [Incidentally, Tom’s recent two year stint as an accompanist in vocalist supreme Tony Bennett’s quartet is not included in this information.]

Thanks to the 4-day festivals that the Los Angeles Jazz Institute [LAJI] puts on twice-a-year, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Tom perform in a variety of settings and on various instruments since I began attending these in 1996.

Although Tom mainly plays piano at these LAJI events, I’ve heard him perform on clarinet and he is dazzling on the instrument.

Which brings me to the arrival of a couple of recent treats which form the basis for this posting: Tom Ranier: In The Still of the Night  - The 20th Anniversary Remastered Edition [Contemporary Records 14067-2] and Tom Ranier This Way [self-produced recording]. [In The Still of the Night is available through Amazon and Tom informs me that This Way will be available through CDbaby. You can also inquire directly to purchase copies at].

With the former having originally been recorded in 1996 and the latter recorded and issued in 2020, these two recordings provide a glimpse of the evolution of Tom as an artist during this 25 year period in his career.

In many ways the two recordings are a study in contrasts with Tom Ranier: In The Still of the Night pointing to Tom’s Bebop and straight-ahead Jazz roots while Tom Ranier This Way is very much a product of how Tom hears the music now with greater rhythmic and harmonic variations and a heavy incorporation of electronics both in terms of instruments and recording techniques.

Fundamentally, what they represent are recorded examples of the evolution of Tom Ranier, an artist who has never stopped growing and developing.

A common thread throughout is overdubbing which provides a solution to how best to handle Tom’s amazing capabilities as a multi-instrumentalist, one who is as much at home on clarinet and other woodwinds as he is on acoustic and synthesized keyboards. 

Tom’s versatility as an artist is further underscored by the fact that 7 of the 11 tracks on Tom Ranier: In The Still of the Night have arrangements for a woodwind choir and a string section - all of which have been orchestrated by … wait for it … Tom!

But having said that, Tom’s work on this recording went from the sublime to the ridiculous when he conceived and transcribed Buddy DeFranco’s solo on Summer Me, Winter Me from Buddy’s album with Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass [OJCCD-867-2], harmonized it for four clarinets and then played all the parts!!!!

And the beautiful song selections that begin with Summer Me, Winter Me, continue with the wonderful trio versions of How Deep Is The Ocean, Where or When and Tom’s original up tempo burner Excuse Me, which is one of seven compositions that Tom composed for the recording with all of the others being set to strings.

Throughout, Tom’s touch produces a crystal clear tone on the piano with each note resonating so perfectly that it's almost as though Tom is wrapping the music in his personal sound and presenting it to the listener as a gift. 

Tom Ranier This Way finds Tom in a very introspective and reflective mood and these, too, are the operative words that best describe the overall texture [sonority] of this recording.

Tom’s music is evocative, poignant, haunting, suggestive - almost to the point of being, at times, mysterious.

No big woodwind and string ensembles here, just Tom on piano, synthesizer, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone saxes, clarinets, bass and contra alto clarinet - JUST!

Along with strong contributions by Thom Rotella on guitar, Trey Henry on bass and Ralph Humphreys on drums, Tom again offers a transcription to demonstrate his multi-instrumental talents, this time on the late Michael Brecker’s solo on Sacred Heart from the Brecker Brothers Out of the Loop album around which he wraps six originals and a singular version the Jobim classic Desafinado which he brilliantly converts to a 7/4 time signature!

The “mood” I referenced earlier comes into stark relief thanks to the overall sound of the recording and the mastering mix. Tom obviously had a particular sonority in mind and this becomes the underlying “concept” for the album, as irrespective of tempo, the tunes blend together as a kind of tone poem.

Tom fits you into the music and, through the use of different instruments, different combinations of instruments, and different harmonies, he changes the listening venues.

It takes a very mature musical mind to conceive all of this and very sophisticated musical skills to execute it. Tom is able to bring it off for a variety of reasons: innate talent, years of working to perfect skills, combined with a half-century of experience as a music performance and music educator.

This Way is an unforgettable trip into the musical mind of a master musician.  It’s a journey that will fill you with many surprises, but above all, what you’ll come away with is a unique Jazz experience courtesy of Tom Ranier and company.

It’s been 45 years+, but Tom Ranier is still knocking me out.

Here’s a taste of what’s on offer in the new CD.

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