© Andrea Canter
“Electrifyingly new and strangely familiar at the same time…with his mix of modern sounds and old-fashioned feeling, Raymond is steering jazz in the right direction.” (DownBeat Magazine, ★★★★ 1/2 stars)
Nearly two years ago, Twin Cities native trumpeter John Raymond was on tour with his Real Feels trio in celebration of their eponymous debut studio album. The music and the partnership (with guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Colin Stranahan) was a success, and in early 2017, the trio was in town at the Icehouse in support of Live Volume 1 (Shifting Paradigms Records), reflecting tracks recorded on their earlier tour at Blu in Akron, OH and Blue Whale in LA. With Raymond recently relocating from New York to Bloomington, IN where he is on the Indiana University faculty, he’s touring the Upper Midwest this week and bringing Real Feels to Vieux Carre’ in St. Paul on September 14. Other stops include Milwaukee (9/15), Appleton, WI (9/16), and Madison (9/17).
Few young musicians truly find success when they spread their wings in the Big Apple. That John Raymond found plenty of work as a sideman and leader within a few years of his graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is in part testimony to his artistic talent, in part to his tenacity in marketing his music. Both have served him well on the New York scene: In addition to completing his master’s degree under Jon Faddis at SUNY-Purchase, Raymond has gigged regularly with his own ensembles throughout the Manhattan club circuit and on national tours; participated in the renowned Festival of New Trumpet; received the 2015 Herb Alpert Young Composer Award; released his debut album Strength and Song, and released a well-received quartet recording on Fresh Sound/New Talent, featuring the great drummer, Billy Hart (Foreign Territory, 2015). Fortunately for Twin Cities’ audiences, John returns “home” often, and on one of those visits in fall 2014, he performed at Studio Z with what he then called his Roots Trio with Hekselman and Stranahan. Shortly thereafter, the trio went into Terrarium Studios in Minneapolis to lay down the tracks that became Real Feels. A few months later, John received the 2015 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award from ASCAP. With the first Real Feels live recording behind him and volume 2 in the works, Raymond decided it was time to spread his wings wider, taking the trumpet faculty position at Indiana’s Jacobs School of Music.
An Israeli native, guitarist Gilad Hekselman has developed a stellar reputation over his first decade in New York, winning the 2005 Gibson Montreux International Guitar Competition, releasing four recordings as leader, and sharing the stage with such notables as Chris Potter, Mark Turner, John Scofield, Anat Cohen, Ari Hoenig, Esperanza Spalding, Gretchen Parlato, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and more.
Denver native Colin Stranahan was selected as a Brubeck Fellow after high school graduation and as a participant in Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program, and in 2012 placed third in the Thelonious Monk International Drum Competition. Notes Raymond, “Colin was someone that I played a handful of sessions with before doing some gigs together. He’s got such a natural feeling for the music – amazing instincts and he’s always really in-the-moment. He brings a sense of unpredictability to this band – in the best kind of way.”
For John, Real Feels is a unique project on several levels. For the first time, John relies solely on the flugelhorn. “I’ve transitioned to only playing flugelhorn with the trio,” he told Bebopified’s Pamela Espeland. “I think it sounds great with guitar. That comes out of the Art Farmer/Jim Hall influence. Farmer is one of the only people who’s known for playing mainly flugelhorn. I got a new flugelhorn, and there’s something about it and just playing flugel in general that has brought out a voice in me that I didn’t have playing trumpet.”
The trio instrumentation is unusual –just flugelhorn, guitar and drums, somewhat akin to the Paul Motian/Joe Lovano/Bill Frisell Trio. “The bass-less vibe is very unique,” says Raymond. “Gilad is one of the only people I know that functions so effortlessly in a situation like this. In a sense I’ve given him all control of the harmony, comping, and different textures, and I feel that he really thrives in this setting.”
Also setting this trio apart from many of its contemporaries is the music on both the studio and live albums. Reflecting the original trio name “Roots,” the setlists among the two albums connect Americana folk (Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, the Appalachian hymn “Amazing Grace”), traditional English balladry via modern American rock (“Scarborough Fair”), and American gospel (I’ll Fly Away”) to classic bebop (Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee”), pop (Lennon and McCartney’s “Blackbird” and McCartney’s “Yesterday”), alternative rock (Thom Yorke’s “Atoms for Peace) and modern jazz (Dave Holland’s nod to Charles Mingus, “Blues for CM” and fellow Minnesota native Chris Morrissey’s “Minor Silverstein”); John provided one original track, the opening “Thaddeus” on the studio album. This might seem to be a step back as Raymond’s first two recordings provided more original material. But, he says, “I thought, let’s just scrap the whole originals thing. Let’s play songs that people are familiar with, whether that’s folk songs or hymns or indie rock tunes, and incorporate some standards in there, too.” The two albums overlap but are not identical — the live album repeats “I’ll Fly Away,” “Atoms for Peace,” “Amazing Grace,” and “This Land is Your Land.” “Yesterday” and “Minor Silverstein” round out the live set. The first five tracks were recorded in Akron at Blu; “Minor Silverstein” is from a gig at the Blue Whale in LA, all recorded in February 2016.
John Raymond is not concerned that much of the setlist comes from places other than jazz, noting that “the nature of the instrumentation, specifically flugelhorn and guitar, will lend a rootsy feel to things, for lack of a better word, so I’m not as concerned about squeezing the jazz out of it.” And the familiarity of most of the material has allowed the musicians to make a more direct connection with the audience. “I’ve really sensed a different connection with audiences when playing this music with this band,” says John. “It’s coming from such a genuine place for all of us that I think it really connects with people in a profound way. That’s precisely why I named the band Real Feels.”
Still, a “unique” project is only memorable if well executed, and here the trio shines brightly, in the studio and on the band stand. Without piano or bass, the music has a raw edge, providing a fresh immediacy regardless of the tune’s origins in Appalachia, gospel, modern jazz or contemporary rock. As one might expect, the six tunes on the Live album stretch out more than the 8 studio tracks, and clearly the tunes have evolved over the time between albums.
The traditional gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away” opens the live set, with a popping intro from Stranahan (Hekselman started things out on the studio album), and the track evolves like a 21st century Second Line march down Bourbon Street as it generates a lot of sound for three musicians, yet the lines are more subtle in this live setting versus the studio recording. Stranahan’s high energy propels from start to finish. Hekselman gives “Yesterday” an elegant introduction, Raymond’s flugelhorn taking over beautifully, as the trio turns the ballad into a hymn. Stranahan again is on the attack leading into “Atoms for Peace” with an extended, furious solo. As on the studio recording, Hekselman adds what sounds like a bass vamp throughout the track, perhaps using a looper while also drawing ethereal effects from the guitar, but the overall effect is a more assertive collaboration among the trio.
Raymond introduces “Amazing Grace” on solo flugelhorn, only hinting at the tune, then falling into the melody over guitar effects and brushes. As on the studio version, Hekselman’s solo creates an exquisite country prayer, but Raymond pushes the trio into a more joyful call. The intro to “This Land Is Your Land” doesn’t give much hint of the tune. Raymond’s whiney flugel, followed by agile twists and turns from Hekselman’s long solo, does not suggest “Redwood Forests” as much as “New York Island,” even more so as Raymond returns to the forefront. Stranahan maintains a level of contagious agitation that drives the track ahead, and his solo over Hekselman’s scampering basslines fuels the frenzy. When Raymond returns to the theme, it’s in counterpoint to a humorous, tinkling guitar and fading finale.
The trio’s interpretation of Chris Morrissey’s “Minor Silverstein” suggests at least two-part looping lines among flugelhorn and guitar against a steady percussive beat, becoming an interplanetary journey with shades of Nordic modernism. The music floats above its own heartbeat.
John Raymond’s music, original compositions or the arrangements of Real Feels, continues to evolve as this modern master’s vision seems to both expand and find sharper focus. And whatever we hear on these two albums–in studio or live, is likely only a sketch of what we will hear at the Icehouse or wherever the next live performance lands. Here’s to Live: Volume Two.
John Raymond and Real Feels perform at Vieux Carre’ at 8 pm on September 14. Vieux Carre’ is located at 408 St Peter Street in downtown St Paul, in the lower level of the Hamm Building. Reservations encouraged. Visit http://vieux-carre.com