I can’t recall the first time I heard a recording of pianist Ray Bryant — perhaps because he was captured so often and so well during the Fifties and onward. Was it with Miles or Sonny Rollins? No, more probably it was as a member (along with brother Tommy) of the Jo Jones Trio. Or as a sideman on any number of Prestige swing-to-bop sessions. I even recall finding a used copy of his Columbia record THE MADISON TIME, which featured Buddy Tate and Benny Morton, among others. Then he made some records for Norman Granz (a solo album, one with Zoot Sims, among others) but he didn’t have as high a profile as other pianists. That struck me as odd, because Bryant’s approach to the piano was expertly orchestral, without any narrow definitions. He struck me as a musician, a pianist rather than someone limited to a single approach.
Thus it is a great pleasure to report that there is a new solo piano CD by Bryant and that it is even better than I thought it would be. It’s called IN THE BACK ROOM and appears on the Evening Star label — a label known for its beautifully done CDs featuring Benny Carter, Joe Wilder, Phil Woods, Randy Sandke, among others. Prodcer Ed Berger has a long association with the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University– he is one of the finest jazz scholars we have — and all of the twelve performances on this CD were recorded at the university in 2004 and 2008, some during a Fats Waller Centennial celebration. Five tracks are Waller compositions, and one is IF I COULD BE WITH YOU, by his teacher James P. Johnson. The other tracks include EASY TO LOVE and ST. LOUIS BLUES — and, most importantly, four Bryant compositions.
Most pianists have the same difficulty considering Fats Waller’s music that trumpet players asked to pay tribute to Louis do, I assume: the musical personalities are so strong, their effect so definite, that the musician paying homage might be tempted to imitate the model. This isn’t terrible in itself: if I knew someone who could play POTATO HEAD BLUES or AFRICAN RIPPLES at will, I would have them come to my apartment often. But the wiser course might be to honor the durable melodies as improvisatory material and go from there. With Waller, however, the risks are immense: what can a player bring to HONEYSUCKLE ROSE that is reasonably authentic and still new?
No one need worry. Bryant is a mature artist, wholly comfortable with his own identity so that he relaxes into his own style — which, one notes immediately, is not built on well-worn figures and pianistic cliches. Rather, he seems to love the way the piano can be made to sound, full and rich, without straining for effect. He is happy to play the melody, to ornament its harmony subtly. His solos sing; his rhythm is relaxed yet consistent. And he is a master of the small variations possible within medium tempo.
Although Bryant is known for his deep immersion in the blues and his originals such as “Little Susie,” the most moving music on this CD comes when he plays his own compositions. One of them, “The Impossible Rag,” is a tour-de-force that pianists might find it hard to reproduce, but Bryant’s virtuosity is more a matter of deep feeling. It comes out most strongly in “Lullaby and” “Little Girl” (the latter dedicated to his wife Claude). “Little Girl,” an almost grieving meditation, sounds cantorial in its minor harmonies: in it, we hear someone considering the possibilities of simple melodic motifs — eloquently and sorrowfully. I didn’t think of jazz when I heard it; rather, of Dvorak. “Lullaby” also takes an apparently simple idea and explores it, gently and sweetly — with contrasting brief sections balancing against each other. Both pieces stayed in my memory for a long time, which says a good deal about Bryant’s powers to evoke emotions. Even if you think you know Bryant’s work, this CD is worth searching out. And if the Evening Star label is new to you, delights await. Visit http://www.bennycarter.com/common/eveningstar/