Profile of Ray Anderson

Profile of Ray Anderson

©Laurence Svirchev

Some people seem to float above everyday life, as if riding a big puffy cloud. Trombonist Ray Anderson gives that impression when he hits the stage decked out with suspendered pleated pants, a multi-patterned shirt, and a hip lid. He is a tall, lean, man, obviously in charge of his body.

His stage personality has ethereal qualities, as if he is a spirit dissolved in making of beautifully invigorating sound; Ray Anderson appears to be in perpetual motion, a rare being who is permanently positive, always seeking the new thing, the best thing, the most musical thing.

The most musical thing has many contexts: the Alligatory Band, funkish with heavy Latin tinges, a trombone quartet, the big band, and frequent collaborations with colleagues and friends Mark Helias and Gerry Hemingway in BassDrumBone. His hit squad at this year’s duMaurier International Jazz Festival Vancouver was the unusually configured Pocket Brass Trio, with Marcus Rojas on tuba, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums.

Anderson is best known for his trombone playing, yet his vocal work has been consistently underestimated. He has always been a singer, working in the early 1980’s as lead for the Slickophonics, an avant-garde vocal group which produced five records and toured mainly in Europe.

His voice maintains the jazz timbres of Chicago, where he was born and raised. Off-stage he enthusiastically greets new and old acquaintances with a down-home friendly “What it is!” How you doing?” “What’s happening?” Like his personality, his voice is gritty, bluesy, blunt, and straightforward, for example when he sings Don’t Mow Your Lawn.

He now lives in eastern Long Island, New York. It is a fine place to raise a family with co-lyricist and sweet-heart Jackie Raven but for one thing: his residence is outside of an estate that has a lawn the size of an 18 hole golf course.

“Man, that lawn is huge! The grounds-keeper starts mowing at one end and by the time he’s finished, the grass has grown so much he has to start all over again! Do you know what it’s like for a musician to have to listen to a two stroke gas-inefficient motor all day long? Lawns are the biggest crop in America, bigger than corn! All those chemicals are a 30 billion dollar industry!! So we wrote Don’t Mow Your Lawn as an ecological statement.”

The song sings itself with lines like, “That chem-grow has got to go, baby!” Close attention to his singing voice shows parallels with trombone improvisation technique. As he repeats the line “There was no funk in my lawn!” several times in a row, the syllables slur together and you can almost hear the throat elongating like it’s a ‘bone slide pulling notes. It is the funniest, funkiest, dancingest and most convincing environmental recording you’ll ever hear.

If one puts all of his musical and personal qualities to the forefront, Ray Anderson is perhaps the most talented overall jazz instrumentalist, singer, and entertainer on the scene today. This talent is all the more remarkable because of the medical problems that have threatened to short-cut his career. He is a diabetic, and that must be difficult for a musician who travels the planet. In 1983, the trombone playing for which he was already famous ground to a complete halt when he was diagnosed with a neurological condition called Bell’s Palsy. It took him a year to recover and then he faced the hard work of getting his ‘bone chops back.

Then in the mid-eighties, he began singing and talking with a gravelly octave-divider tone, like Louis Armstrong. That voice was not,  as some disparagingly thought, a crowd-pleasing bargaining-chip, a facsimile of that most famous jazz voice. He had actually lost control of his natural voice. He had developed a throat hemangioma, a big bundle of unnatural blood vessel growth that limited the resonance of his vocal chords. Laser surgery eliminated the  hemangioma.

Ray Anderson seems to bounce back every time, producing consistently interesting music. Take his 1994 project with three other trombonists, Craig Harris, George Lewis, and Gary Valente. He calls it a “happy collaboration. It started from a conversation with Gary, was a long time gestating, and then it hatched.”

It’s a perfect trombone recording, with every quaver, whisper, lip blat-blurt, growl, and mouth-piece kiss of the four trombones audible. Anderson contributes two compositions, Again Raven and Four Some, and three arrangements from the Ellington  songbook.

One of these arrangements, Billy Strayhorn’s Lotus Blossom, is a triumph. The tempo is lentissimo, so slow you can almost feel the blossom opening, a motion enhanced by the exquisite unison of the four musicians drawing breath as they begin each new phrase. The uniqueness of the arrangement lies not only in the tempo, but with the inversion of usual musical structure. The bass trombone is the melodic voice and the three other horns play the harmonic line on top.

Perhaps the most ambitious project that Ray Anderson has undertaken is his Big Band Record performed by the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. Gruntz’ CJB is a performance vehicle for some of the greatest improvisers in the world. George Gruntz only plays and records the compositions of band members. So when Anderson wanted to record his compositions in the big band context, and needed both a vehicle and an arranger, he naturally thought of his old friend.

He explains: “Although some of the tunes were already arranged, my spending the next six months arranging the rest would have made it an impossible project. George has control of the big band palette; he is also a natural aristocrat with the gift of keeping everyone at ease in any situation. The personnel were very carefully picked. We were in the studio for three days and there were was no rehearsals. The charts were just dropped in front of everybody. The tape rolled an hour later. There was no dubbing.”

George Gruntz is quite complimentary about Anderson as well. He is quoted in the liner notes saying: “He has taken trombone performance technique (in terms of register, tonguing, velocity, and expressiveness) to places that one could have conceived of only twenty years ago.”

On Lips Apart, Gruntz’ observations are played out. Anderson’s opening  solo consists of a series of sustained low register growls that pulsate into higher register harmonics that sound like a primitive human language. His transitions from the bass end to the treble are extraordinarily fast, the harmonic inter-play between the humidity of the breath and the vibration of metal palpable. Really, a human being needs more than one pair of lips to create the embouchure for playing the things Anderson does.

Selected Discography:

Cheer Up.  Trio with Han Bennink, Christy Doran. hat ART 6175; 1995.

Slideride. Trombone quartet with Craig Harris, George Lewis, Gary Valente. hat ART 6165; 1995.

Don’t Mow Your Lawn. Alligatory Band with Lew Soloff, Gregory Jones, Jerome Harris, Frank Colón, Tommy Campbell. ENJA 8070-2; 1994

Big Band Record. Performed by the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. Gramavision R2 79497P; 1994

You Be. Ray Anderson-Mark Helias-Gerry Hemingway. Minor Music 8007; 1986

Originally published in 5/4 Magazine, Seattle 1995

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