There’s electric power, wind-driven energy, solar power, and then there’s Ray Skjelbred.
I first heard this intelligently swinging pianist when my California friend and musical guide John L. Fell sent me cassettes of the Berkeley Rhythm band — a loosely floating jazz ensemble held together by goodwill, the desire to swing, and the gentle force of Mr. Skjelbred at the piano.
When you hear Ray improvise, you think of the great players: Stacy, Melrose, Hines, Sullivan . . . but his musical wisdom exhibits itself in the same way that Basie’s did — a gentle, understated reminder of The Way . . .
Since then, I’ve bought Ray’s CDs (solo and as a member of various ensembles, with everyone from Hal Smith and Becky Kilgore to Melissa Collard and Dawn Lambeth — most recently The First Thursday Jazz Band with Steve Wright) and always found myself uplifted.
Ray doesn’t have a collection of gestures and motifs, suitable for every time the band turns the corner from C7 to F at a medium-tempo. Rather, he merges with the music and it pours through him: his energies becoming part of the band and vice versa.
For the past few years, people who don’t live close enough to Ray to see him in person have been able to do the next best thing through the generosity of Rae Ann Berry, who has been toting her video camera and tripod to festivals and jubilees where she knows Ray and his colleagues will be playing.
Most recently, Rae Ann drove from San Francisco to Oregon to capture Ray and his Cubs (named for his beloved Chicago Cubs) live at the 21st Annual Greater Olympia Dixieland Jazz Festival in Lacey WA. Rae Ann is a woman of discernment and diligence, so she’s posted forty-two video performances by the Cubs, which to my way of thinking isn’t one too many.
The Cubs are Kim Cusack on reeds, Katie Cavera on guitar, Clint Baker on bass, and Jeff Hamilton on drums. (Before you dive into the videos, you should also know that this band has made a wonderful CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO, for the Jazzology label.)
Here’s some of the Good Stuff:
BREEZE (BLOW MY BABY BACK TO ME):
And for the Goldkettians in the audience (I know there are many) here’s a slow-drag IDOLIZING:
One of my favorite songs is SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE. (I do, however have a logical problem with the lyrics as delivered by Kim Cusack. Can you imagine an army of lovers that would push Kim aside? for the life of me, I can’t):
I purposely chose the three videos above — not because they’re especially good — because they find Ray performing on a keyboard, not a full-size acoustic piano. Did you notice? He makes that electronic object sound like a baby grand.
Here he is on an instrument more suited to his talent, even though it’s a spinet — rocking through SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:
The good news is that there are thirty-eight more videos of the Cubs to savor. And the Cubs have gigs for 2011 and 2012.
The bad news? I’ll let Ray tell you himself, concisely:
“I broke my hip July 2, had surgery later that day, must put no weight on it for six weeks. I sadly had to cancel all my work in July and August. I believe I will be able to get back to it in September, if everything heals as it should.”
It pains me to offer that news — but I hope that for Ray and for those of us who admire and love him, those six weeks pass in the space of a George Wettling four-bar interlude.
And I would like to ask JAZZ LIVES readers to do something — not for me, but for one of our musical heroes. Send no money and no boxtops — but if you’ve drawn joy and delight from anything Ray has ever played, would you send him some healing vibrations in return? I would like to imagine the esteemed Mr. Skjelbred surrounded by love and empathy from every corner of the musical globe. Although he’s a modest man, someone seriously unconcerned with the weight of “Western ego,” I don’t think Ray would mind if we wrapped his troubles in healing dreams. And if you prefer to send your affection in the form of an email, then there’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you, Ray, Kim, Katie, Clint, Jeff, and Rae Ann — our generous heroes!