Pianist / composer / scholar / poet Ray Skjelbred is one of the rare ones.
I don’t say this only because of his deeply rewarding piano playing — soloist, accompanist, bandleader — but because of the understanding that it rests upon. Ray understands that he is one of long line of creators — members of the tribe of improvising storytellers, some of them no longer on the planet but their energies still vividly alive.
He doesn’t strive to copy or to “recreate”; rather, he honors and embodies in ways that words can only hint at. Call it an enlightened reverence that takes its form in blues-based melodic inventions, and you’ll be close to understanding the essence of what Ray does, feels, and is.
Here are some of his own introspections: “I get ideas by trying to hear the world differently, sometimes even misunderstanding sound on purpose. . . . I like to see things differently, to shape a song, to make it mine. I like to make tempo changes, especially fast to slow, I like to make the notes as round and warm as possible and part of that comes from shading a composition with blue notes that frame the passion. I like to fill in harmonies when the melody feels a little bony to me. . . . I think music is an adventure, a chance to shape sound with your bare hands.”
I’ve admired his playing for some years now — before I knew him as a soloist, I heard him through ensembles on recordings led by other musicians, rather in the way one would hear Hines, Horace Henderson, Joe Sullivan, Frank Melrose, Jess Stacy, Zinky Cohn, Tut Soper, Cassino Simpson, Alex Hill, or a dozen others subversively and happily animating the largest group.
There are several ways to experience this magic — Ray making himself a portal through which the elders can speak, while adding his own personal experiences. One, of course, is to witness his transformations in person. To do this, you’d have to know where he is going to be playing — check out the bottom of the page here for his appearances in the near future.
Another way t0 have a portable Skjelbred festival is through his compact discs, recent and otherwise, listed here. I call two new issues to your attention. One, RAGTIME PIANO, is — beneath its rather plain title — a continued exploration of subversive possibilities, witty and warm.
I remember the first time I began to listen to it — with small surprises popping through the surface like small flowers, catching me off guard, subtler than Monk creating his own version of stride piano but with some of the same effect. Each track is a small hot sonata, with the surprises resurfacing to make the whole disc a suite of unusual yet comfortable syncopated dance music.
The sixteen solo piano performances offer classics, stretched and reconsidered: SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / SOMETHING DOING / WHOOPEE STOMP / LOUISIANA RAG / MOURNFUL SERENADE / DANCE OF THE WITCH HAZELS / PINEAPPLE RAG / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING, as well as Ray’s originals — inspired by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Julia Child: SMILING RAG / LEAN AND GRIEFY RAG / DON’T CROWD THE MUSHROOMS / COCHINEAL RAG / LITTLE ELMER’S RAG / THE PICOT RAG / REFLECTIONS RAG / BALLS AND STRIKES FOREVER.
Another deep lesson in how to get the most music possible — and then some — from the piano can be found in Ray’s PIANO PORTRAITS, which demonstrates his range of endearing associations, from the Hot Five and early blues singers to Carl Kress and Eddie Lang, from Jimmie Noone and early Ellington to Bix, Hines, and Charlie Shavers. It’s a filling and fulfilling musical banquet: SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD / FEELING MY WAY / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / WEATHER BIRD RAG / SQUEEZE ME / I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE / DINAH / READY FOR THE RIVER / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / CLARK AND RANDOLPH / CANNED MEAT RAG / BLUES FROM “CREOLE RHAPSODY” / BLUES FOR MILLIE LAMMOREUX / FATHER SWING / WHEN I DREAM OF YOU / A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND / MY HEART / MUGGLES / UNDECIDED. Ray’s prose is as forthright and evocative as his playing, so this CD is worth reading as well as hearing for his recollections of Johnny Wittwer, Joe Sullivan, Burt Bales, Art Hodes, and Earl Hines.
Another way to experience Ray, his mastery of “those pretty notes and jangly octaves,” can be through these video performances. He has been more than gracious to me, allowing me to capture him in a variety of settings. I offer one here, BULL FROG BLUES, recorded on November 29, 2013, at the San Diego Thanksgiving Jazz Festival — with his Cubs, that savory band: Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Mike Daugherty, drums:
Wherever Ray goes, whatever the context in which he makes music, it’s always rewarding.
May your happiness increase!