A Few Minutes With… Keith Pray

Recording engineer Scott Petitto and Keith Pray
Recording engineer Scott Petitto and Keith Pray

Interview and story by J Hunter

For me, Keith Pray is at his best when he’s having fun – when he’s got the pedal to the metal on some blues-soaked burner that’s got the house up and screaming, or pouring his heart through his alto sax onto a glistening ballad that everybody’s hearing but is meant for only one person. That’s why – even though Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble disc “Live at the Lark Tavern” is an awesome achievement on many levels – my favorite Keith Pray release has been the B-3 party disc “One Last Stop”…

Until now.

“A happy medium” sounds like a wishy-washy description of Pray’s latest ARC release “Confluence,” but that’s exactly what it is: The sweet spot between the full-moon boogie of “Last Stop” and the technical brilliance of “Lark Tavern.” Backed by only three knockout players plus one (and we’ll have that explained in a minute), Pray achieves a creative concept that is simple in its elements but devilishly complex in its execution – whether he’s playing meaty originals like “The Calling” and “Vamp for Peace,” or tradition-rich standards like John Coltrane’s “Africa” or Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy.”

In short, “Confluence” is the real deal, and Pray took time from preparing for his Saturday night (March 31) drop party at the Van Dyck in Schenectady to talk to us about it:

Q: Bill McCann’s liner notes talk about how this isn’t a quintet you’re playing with – it’s a “quartet plus one.” What’s the difference? And where did you get the idea?

A: Around 1993, I saw the Joe Henderson Trio with John Scofield as the fourth person. I ran into Scofield on the street, and he said he was excited about the gig because his role was different than if he was playing in a quartet situation. He said he had to approach it as if he was just adding to what the trio already had. In our case, the quartet had been playing together, and I had been playing duo a bunch with guitarist Chuck D’Aloia. So the idea came to mind of adding Chuck to the group in the same fashion as Scofield. I asked him and described the idea, and he loved it and thought it would be a great thing to do. It allowed Chuck to think outside of the traditional role while still allowing the group to maintain its cohesiveness.

Q: “One Last Stop” and the Big Soul disc were recorded live. With “Confluence,” did you get the same sense of immediacy from having this group “all in the same room” that you did having all your players in one club?

A: It was an entirely different vibe. Everyone knew that this was a studio record and, without ever discussing it, we all played in a different way than we would live. We could not afford to play with as much volume – sound issues would arise; we knew we may have to wear headphones, which adds a different dynamic, and, of course, there would be no crowd to feed off from. Everyone in the group has had plenty of studio experience, and all of us trusted one another, and there was zero ego. It was actually very smooth and natural. The hardest part was getting comfortable with the sound so that we all could hear, and then it was just playing a couple takes and moving on. As far as immediacy goes, once you play something, you can’t take it back. Jazz is still about that, especially when it is everyone in the same room. You have to live with the outcome. There are things we all had to accept for the betterment of the take, but that is what makes jazz so interesting. It’s not about perfection – it’s about communicating.

Q: Chuck D’Aloia’s work on “Confluence” just knocks me flat – particularly on his own composition “Alley Cat,” which you describe in the liner notes as sort of a compromise with improvisation. There’s this amazing snap to his guitar that adds a really nice backspin to the music in general. What was it like working with Chuck?

A: Chuck is the greatest. He has been an inspiration and mentor for me since we met in the mid-late ’90s – in the last few years, more so than ever. He has boat-loads of experience in the studio, as well as writing and playing. Also, he is extremely humble and comfortable with who he is, and that carried over throughout the process for me.

Q: I think most people know Jeff Siegel from the great drum work he’s done with Lee Shaw. But I think his own release “Live in Europe” is one of the most bopping discs to come out of this area. What’s your take on Siege? Had you worked together before?

A: I met Jeff when I sat in with Lee Shaw a few years ago. He was super-nice and said he would play sometime, so I booked him on a gig and told him the “handcuffs were off.” We had a blast! Jeff is seriously not only a great drummer, but he listens and communicates so well. I really enjoy the way his rhythms percolate, and that it is not fills per se, but a constant chatter or conversation that gives the soloist a constant foundation to build off from.

Q: Bassist Lou Pappas and drummer Peter Tomlinson are names that may be new to some. How’d you hook up with them? And what made them the right choice for this band (besides their resumes, that is, which are both pretty heavy)?

A: I met Peter over 10 years ago on a gig, and I loved the way he played. After a while we started playing more and more, and his sensitivity – while still creating energy – is what I love about his playing. Again, the way he supports the soloist is wonderful. Peter also introduced me to Lou, who is just the nicest guy and a monster bass player. His time is effortless; he has a great tone; and he locks in great with Jeff. All three of them have been playing together for years in different groups, but when I got the three of them together on one of my jobs, it was clear that this is a serious rhythm section, and that they could really interpret my vision at a high level.

Q: Although all the original compositions are new from a recording standpoint, some of them have been around as far back as 2002. Was it just a question of waiting for a band like this, or an opportunity like this, to finally get them down on tape? (“Tape”! Dating myself, and loving every minute of it…)

A: I write a lot of material. A lot of it makes it into performance, and some tunes never see the light of day. When I went to pick tunes for the record, it was a pretty quick process, as I knew what songs fit this group well already. I was missing a few things, and that’s when I asked Chuck to write a couple of things, I picked a couple of covers, and I wrote the tune “Confluence.” I already knew what the record would sound like. The only surprise was Chuck’s tune “Alley Cat”, which quickly became possibly my favorite song on the record.

Q: Two of your originals – “Two Years of the Lotus Blossom” and “Song for Katie” – were written for your wife. I realize writing a song is a lot harder than running into CVS and buying a Whitman’s sampler. But I have to ask: What’s the best non-musical gift you’ve given her on Valentine’s Day? And did it match up with these tunes, both of which are very beautiful?

A: As Katie is a musician, it didn’t really get the reaction I thought it might. “Song for Katie” was written before we were married, and she kind of didn’t seem all that impressed. “Two Years,” she thought was sweet. In general we are pretty low key about the whole Valentine’s Day thing, so I can’t say I have done anything to match up!

Q: You and I had the same introduction to “Gingerbread Boy” – through Dexter Gordon’s awesome version on his live disc “Homecoming.” (Full disclosure: I was blasting that version at full volume on my ride home the other day.) You went in a different direction with the tune here. What was the process on that like?

A: The process was, “Oh my God, Jeff wants me to do WHAT?!” Jimmy’s tune is perfect in and of itself. I was not intending on changing anything, but Jeff thought we should, so I said I would try. Nothing came to me, and then I was out of town visiting my parents and sat down to try some stuff, and just started singing the melody slow. And then it happened quickly and organically from that point. I hope that this version still acknowledges Jimmy’s genius, while still putting my humble touch on it.

Q: My favorite track on “Confluence” has to be your take on “Africa” – not only because you and the guys play your asses off, but because I think breaking the piece down to a quintet arrangement actually frees the tune up, and toughens it up at the same time. You’ve kinda-sorta played it this way before, though, right?

A: Ray Vega re-introduced me to the tune when I played with his group “Tales from the Boogie Down” in NYC. That band was more of a funky fusion group and was a lot of fun. I realized the first time we did it that that tune was for me, and I used it once in a while from then on. The problem has always been getting the right players to play it. It can sound many different ways, but with such static harmony, it takes a lot of communication to make it interesting. I knew these guys had it, so I threw it on the table, and they loved it.

Q: I’ve been watching you play for almost seven years now, and the joy you put into your music and your solos still gets me. But something I’ve always wanted to ask you about is this amazing smile of peace and satisfaction you invariably have when someone else on the stand is soloing. What’s better for you – playing the music, or listening to the music playing around you?

A: I don’t think in terms of solos. I use the word, but I truly believe – and always have – that it is just someone’s turn to lead the conversation. When you are having a conversation with someone you like to talk to, there is usually a lot of smiling that goes with it. I am lucky to have so many friends who not only play well, but also have their own voice on their instrument. I love sound and how people choose to organize it, especially when you thought you knew what they were going to do and they surprise you.

Saxophonist-composer Keith Pray and his band celebrate the release of his new album, “Confluence” on the Artists Recording Collective label, with a CD release party at the Van Dyck in Schenectady at 7pm on Saturday (March 31). Advance tix are $10.

Chuck D'Aloia
Chuck D'Aloia
The Keith Pray recording session
The Keith Pray recording session for Confluence

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