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Ray Bryant

Four Classic Albums

AVID JAZZ AMSC 1248 [79:17 + 73:59]


Ray Bryant Trio 1956
1. Cubano Chant
2. Off Shore
3. Well, You Needn’t
4. Cry Me A River
5. In A Mellow Tone
6. You Are My Thrill
7. Night In Tunisia
8. Goodbye
9. Philadelphia Bound
10. Pawn Ticket
11. The Breeze And I
12. It’s A Pity To Say Goodnight
Alone With The Blues
13. Blues (No.3)
14. Joy (Blues No.2)
15. Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)
16. Me And The Blues (Blues No.1)
17. My Blues (Blues No.5)
18. Rocking Chair
19. Stocking Feet

Little Susie
1. Little Susie
2. By Myself
3. Blues For Norine
4. Moon-Faced, Starry Eyed
5. Big Buddy
6. Willow Weep For Me
7. Greensleeves
8. So In Love
9. If I Can Just Make It (Into Heaven)
10. Misty
Hollywood Jazz Beat
11. On Green Dolphin Street
12. Ruby
13. Invitation
14. Secret Love
15. An Affair To Remember (Our Love Affair)
16. The High And The Mighty
17. Exodus (Main Theme)
18. Laura
19. Three Coins In A Fountain
20. El Cid (Love Theme)
21. Tonight
22. True Love

Recording details:

Ray Bryant Trio 1956 : Bryant (piano), Wyatt Ruther (bass), Jo jones (drums, tracks 1,5-7,11) Kenny Clarke (drums, 2,4,8,9) Osie Johnson (drums, 3,6,12) Candido Camoro (congas, 1-7).NYC, April 3 – May 11, 1956.

Alone With the Blues : Ray Bryant (piano) NYC, December 19, 1958.

Little Susie : Bryant (piano), Tommy Bryant (bass), Eddie Locke (drums, 4-9). NYC, January 19, 1960.

On tracks 1-3 and 10 the drummer may be Gus Johnson (as Avid suggest) or Oliver Jackson (as in some discographies).

Hollywood Jazz Beat : Bryant (piano), unknown orchestra, arranged and conducted by Richard Wess. NYC, March 27, 1962.

Three of the four albums which make up this 2-CD reissue set from Avid present the pianist Ray Bryant (1931-2011) at something like his best – which means that they contain jazz piano playing of a high order. The fourth album an attempt to present Bryant as “a ‘popular’ artist”, in the words of the original sleeve notes (by no less a figure than John Hammond, who was also the producer of the record). The orchestra with which he plays is anonymous in both senses of the word, the names of the musicians (except for arranger and conductor, Richard Wess, who is best known for his arrangements on albums by Bobby Darin) are not known, and their playing is possessed of no distinctive character. Bryant himself does, perfectly well, what the session wants him to do, but it is nothing that hundreds of lesser pianists couldn’t have done equally well.

So, the substance of these two CDs is to be found elsewhere. Finest of all, to my ears, is Alone With the Blues.

Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Bryant was taking classical piano lessons by the age of 8. He was soon a proficient musician, so much so that he was taking paid gigs when in in his early teens and joined the Musicians Union at 14. Indeed, he made what seems to have been his first recording at that age in Philadelphia (in 1945) as part of a band led by drummer Jimmy Johnson (a band which also included John Coltrane and Benny Golson). Bryant’s mother, it should be noted, sometimes played piano in a local church and his sister Veronica was a well-regarded gospel pianist and, incidentally, the first piano teacher of jazz pianist Kenny Barron. The influences of gospel music and the blues are never far to seek in Bryant’s best work. In later years he learned from major figures such as Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and Bud Powell, synthesizing all such influences into a coherent, yet flexible, personal idiom. For a few years in the 1940s he worked with guitarist Tiny Grimes in what was essentially a Rhythm and Blues band. He also worked with a Dixieland band. In 1953 he became the house pianist at the Blue Note club in Philadelphia. He stayed there for more than two years, working with touring soloists such as Lester Young and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. He was encouraged by such artists, especially Davis, to make the move to New York, and did so when invited by Carmen Macrae to work as her accompanist; he seems to have found plenty of work in New York whether with, on the one hand, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge or, on the other hand Donald Byrd, Max Roach and Benny Golson. In clubs and recording studios he accompanied singers including McRae and Betty Carter (with whom he had recorded while still based in Philadelphia). He recorded with both Sonny Rollins (Worktime!) and Miles Davis in 1955. This list might be extended a good deal, but it is already long enough to show that Bryant was recognized as, in more than one sense of the phrase, “a safe pair of hands” in almost any jazz context.

Given that Alone With the Blues is an album of unaccompanied piano one might, I suppose, say that Bryant has to trust in that “safe pair of hands”. True enough, but more important than manual dexterity is the wealth of experience across the jazz tradition that informs Bryant’s playing. What he draws on in this truly ‘classic’ album is his own rootedness in the blues and how that form has been handled by several generations of pianists before him. There are debts here to blues pianists such as Roosevelt Sykes, to the great stride pianists and the masters of boogie-woogie, perhaps Pete Johnson in particular. But none of this is audible as imitation or quotation. It is rather that the music of such great blues pianists is part of Bryant’s consciousness, interiorized to the point where it is a natural dimension of his musical imagination. The album is very largely made up blues, the exceptions being ‘Lover Man’ and ‘Rocking Chair’. All the blues tracks are credited as compositions by Bryant, but what matters about them is not the ‘theme’, but what Bryant does with the basic structures of the form in the choruses he improvises. There is a remarkable air of ‘privacy’ about this session – as if we were being allowed to overhear Ray Bryant playing for himself, as it were, musing over the very essence of the blues. It is important to stress that Bryant’s playing of the blues on this album is not some sort of a ‘modern comment’ on an old tradition nor any kind of revival of an earlier style; it is music audibly felt deeply and personally, music deeply imagined by the player. The two non-blues tracks are perfectly competent and thoroughly interesting, but less gripping. It is Bryant’s work on tracks such as ‘Blues (No.3)’, ‘Joy’ (where one hears the gospel influence very clearly) and ‘Me and the Blues’ which makes this album exceptional. So much so that I think of it as one of the very best solo piano recordings in jazz. It belongs on a shelf with the finest solo recordings of, say, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor, though it is not, save in its emotional intensity and its level of musical imagination, very much like the work of any of those great pianists. Alone With the Blues is, in itself, well worth the price of this pair of CDs from Avid.

Though not quite on the level of the solo album, the two trio sets, Ray Bryant Trio -1956 and Little Susie are also fine albums. There were, of course, many fine pianists making trio recordings in the second half of the 1950s, from Junior Mance and Kenny Drew to Hank Jones and Red Garland, to name but a few. Bryant’s playing has, I find, a greater emotional power than that of many of his contemporaries. A listen, for example, to ‘Cry Me A River’ or ‘The Breeze and I’ should make the point (both are on the Trio – 1956 album). Also characteristic of Bryant at this time was his special facility in Latin rhythms, as in tunes like ‘Cubano Chant’ and ‘Night in Tunisia’ (on, again, the Trio – 1956 album). But he can put his own imprint on ‘jazz standards’ too, such as ‘Willow Weep for Me’ and ‘So in Love (both onLittle Susie) or ‘Well, You Needn’t’ ( Ray Bryant Trio – 1965).

Given the excellence of Alone With the Blues and the assurance evident on Ray Bryant Trio 1956 and Little Susie, it is hard not to feel that Hollywood Jazz Beat was something of a waste of Bryant’s talents. Still, three fine albums out of four makes this a desirable set of re-issues. And perhaps you may find more to enjoy in Hollywood Jazz Beat than I can. By the way, those who share my fondness for Ray Bryant at his best might like to watch an interview with him that can be found on YouTube: .

Glyn Pursglove

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