As a student enrolled in Stanford Business School, Ray Drummond could have chosen a much easier life than that of a jazz musician. The mere fact that he left school to journey down that difficult road is a testament to the bassist's love for the music. He is one of the most in-demand bassists of our time. Christian McBride may garner the publicity, but Drummond has McBride's record output beat hands down. Drummond has been featured on well over two hundred recordings. His latest as a leader has just been released on Arabesque Recordings and is entitled "1-2-3-4." I sat down with Drummond from a Holiday Inn as he was on tour with his Excursion Band to talk about his career choice, his music, and his new release. It is Drummond, unedited and in his own words.
JazzReview.com: Let's start from the beginning.
Ray Drummond: I started as a brass player back when I was really young, maybe about from seven or eight, and discovered the bass, later in high school. I didn't really become a professional musician for several years out of college, but I was always playing. It wasn't until I was in graduate school that I became a professional jazz musician. From there, it's just when I moved to New York, I'd already worked a number of gigs. I was living in San Francisco, so the guys that I worked out there included Bobby Hutcherson, and Woody Shaw was living out there then, and Michael White the violinist, not Dr. Michael White the clarinetist, and people like Sonny Stitt, just numbers of different, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, they're all different people that I got a chance to play with during that time. Finally, I came to New York in late '77 and I haven't looked back since then. I've had the opportunity and pleasure and quite honored to play with quite a few people since that point. That's, kind of, sort of, a capsule, a thumbnail sketch. The people that I've been fortunate enough to work with, for instance, range from Hank Jones up to David Murray, and Kenny Barron, and Johnny Griffin, I mean it just goes on and on and on, but include a lot of, just about all the people that I've been interested to record and play with, literally, many, many leading people in the business.
JazzReview.com: You were attending Stanford Business School when you decided to pursue your love for jazz music, what made you choose such a humble life, considering a Stanford Business School MBA would have been much more lucrative for you?
Ray Drummond: I always was interested in music and always played, but it always a great hobby. When I was in business school, I just made what some people might do later in their life, like a mid-course correction. I just decided that I wanted to try my hand at something that I enjoyed, really enjoyed, so I had never considered up to that time of being a professional musician. I just thought I'd give it a shot. And low and behold, I found that not only could I support myself, I actually thought I could satisfy a lot of the voices that I kept hearing. I've been hearing a lot of music for a long time. It was just a question of trying to get this music out there.
JazzReview.com: Out of those persons whom you've played with, were there any that stand out now as very prominent influences in your music and in your career?
Ray Drummond: There are really a couple of people, but they're not known to the general public. Probably one of the greatest people for me personally is a San Francisco based musician named Jules Broussard, an alto saxophonist who lives in San Francisco. I would have to consistently call him my mentor, not so much as teaching me how to play bass or anything because he really had nothing to do with that. Jules taught me how to use discipline and to study the music and to also to apply that discipline to the, kind of, rigor to my personal self study, and to him I am eternally grateful for that. He taught me how to be teacher and student at the same time, you might say. That has been more valuable than any lesson that I've learned from any of the other musical kinds of situations, not to say that I certainly haven't learned lots from the likes of Hank Jones and Johnny Griffin and lot of the people that I have worked with, but I would have to say that's probably the most valuable, that's the most valuable thing that I've gotten, is what I got from Jules.
JazzReview.com: You appear on well over two hundred albums, and I believe I am being a bit conservative in my estimate, yet you have only made a handful of recordings as a leader.
Ray Drummond: I think you're actually being quite conservative, Fred. It's closer to three hundred, maybe a little more than that now, but it's somewhere in that range. I just have not taken the time to actually document a lot of what I've been thinking about. It's only been within the last fifteen years that I've actually set out, documenting thoroughly a lot of the things that I'm thinking about musically. But, Fred, the buck stops here. I could very easily have gotten, but I came to New York and I got to working and I was so taken by the fact that I was working with a lot of people who had been my childhood and teenage heroes. I just didn't get to it. I was working so much as a sideman that I just didn't get to the other part of something that I had wanted to do, which was to record a lot of my own, a lot of music that I wanted to do, various projects. "Excursion" (Arabesque) is a project that I wanted to do for years and years, long before I came to New York, same thing with the trio record called "The Essence" (DMP) with Hank Jones and Billy Higgins. I've wanted to do a record like that for a bunch of years, although that was a record that I wanted to do after I came to New York. The couple of duo records ("One to One, Volumes 1 & 2") that I did. The two that I did with Bill Mays (pianist) were things that I had wanted to do, but it was something that you didn't realize until you were in the middle of it. That was one I knew that I wanted to do. I sensed that it would be a recording like that, like those two recordings. But Bill and I, we had been friends for years and years and years, yet we had never imagined the fact that if we worked together that we'd have this kind of a recording. It came about because of our working together at Bradley's and Bill having being asked right at the same time to record a record for that company (DMP). It's amazing how things happen. But at any rate, at this point, I am bound and determined to now get myself in situations where I can actually get a lot of what I'm think about documented. I've got a bunch of projects that I'd like to do, so one at a time, I'll realize them.
JazzReview.com: Let's talk about your latest album on Arabesque, "1-2-3-4." You've got Craig Handy on saxophones, Stephen Scott on piano, and Billy Hart on drums.
Ray Drummond: I had a concept going into the recording studio, and in fact, it changed. As the producer, I changed the focus of that recording. I will point out right now that that quartet is in the middle of this "Excursion" Band that we're out here with, the All-star "Excursion" Band that actually has the four of us and then you add David Sanchez and you have the current group that's out here on tour right now, the group that worked at the Vanguard a couple of weeks ago and has been out the last couple of weeks and we'll be doing things through the end of March. The quartet, I had some tunes that I had thought about, some original couple of arrangements of things that I wanted the quartet to do, but we were working. What I did was I scheduled this recording, having this recording right after a week at the Vanguard, this was in 1997, the middle of '97, June. But when this group, Billy and Craig and I had worked together in several groups, and of course, Stephen as well, but Stephen had never really worked with me in any of my groups. What happened was the quartet really got into some different territory as a quartet playing some of the older material, some of which, a lot of which has previously been recorded on different recordings. I really enjoyed the interpretations so much that I changed the focus and there are a couple of things that I had originally programmed for this quartet record, for instance like "Goin' Home" and this composition called "Kinda Like," definitely those were ones that I had originally intended, "Prelude to a Kiss" was another one. Those were tracks that I had originally intended on having on this quartet record, but then I changed my mind and decided that there were a number of tunes like "What is Happening Here?" and "Driftin'" and some other things like that that I just totally changed on. Actually, the one that's really, kind of, striking is "Ballade Poetiques," which is really interesting because it's a reading of a song that we did on the previous Arabesque recording, on "Vignettes," because that was a trio with Billy and Renee Rosnes (piano) and there were two different readings of that ballad as a trio. One night in the club, this group played some things and I just decided to play that on the bandstand and the quartet sounded great. That was another thing that got me to think that I better record this quartet this way instead of the newer stuff, some of the other tunes that I had thought about doing originally. So anyway, as the producer, the focus changed from recording mostly new stuff to going back and visiting some older stuff. I never had a quartet record before. That's, kind of, the other thing as well that, sort of, emerged, I realized that when I was putting this all together during that week. This would be a marvelous opportunity to document this, in a way, a little bit differently than I had planned. I had already thought about the solos, the duos, and the trios, and the quartet. The quartet being the basic unit on the CD. Some of these tunes emerged from a different direction than what was originally conceived. Craig's been in a few of these recordings here. He's on "Excursion." He's been on many of the Vanguard gigs and most of the stuff that we've done when we've gone on tour. Gary Bartz did something with us on time. A quintet that went out once was Bartz, Steve Nelson, Renee, and Billy Hart, and we played out in New Mexico, one time, at a concert. Craig's been around for a while. We met in the Mingus Dynasty, actually, going way back to the early '80s or mid-'80s, something, but we were together, Marvin "Smitty", John Hicks, I think, was in the original Dynasty that I was in, or we were in one of the Dynasty's that I was in, with Craig and George Adams, we had a couple of tenors, actually. In fact, when I first joined I remember Jack Walrath was there for a while, the premier people that had worked with Mingus as well. But I was impressed then with Craig. We've enjoyed what he was doing. He always seems like he's working on something to me, you know, growing and developing his voice. I just think that he is one musician that I see, who has taken the time to find his own voice and to grow and develop it. He tells a story. He's a storyteller. In fact, just about everybody that I try to work with, people that I pick to work with, record with, they all have these stories that they tell in their own voices. That's what attracts me to them. Consistently all I'm thinking about are the kinds of contributions and the stories that these various artists might be telling in some kind of context in which they felt comfortable. That's part of the method to the madness. I call it, I subscribe to what I call the Miles Davis spirit of bandleading by hiring the voices and personalities that are going to tell their story. Have the musical framework that can encourage them to do that and then turn them loose.
JazzReview.com: So you like to give your personnel room to roam?
Ray Drummond: Well, if you think about Miles's greatest bands, all of his bands really, maybe the later bands, this would be after "Bitches Brew," or actually, it's a little further away than that, Miles became a little more controlling, but not only was he shaping it, but he was directing traffic that was a little different form what Miles had done with earlier bands. Before that, he pretty much decided the material and let the group work out the way that it would be interpreted. He set the tone, and the tempo, and the choice of the material, and that sort of thing, but as far as encouraging his musicians to actually put themselves into it, that was one of his strengths, one of his greatest strengths. John Coltrane was also like that in the sense that he would give a musical framework to let his artists to actually tell their stories. John might play and then he would stop playing, finish a solo, and it wouldn't be unusual to see everybody strolling except for maybe Elvin. Elvin might take a long solo, this is live now, that we're talking about. What the bandleaders were interested in wasn't so much a pristine, perfect presentation according to how they conceived this music, like the piano had to do this or the drummer had to do that particular thing. They were interested more in, OK, this is the material and let us show how these stories will be told by various, individual artists in the group. Definitely, we're talking about somebody who is leading the group and you're talking about somebody that's choosing the material. You don't see so many bands using that kind of an approach today. To me, most of the bands that I see seem to emphasis the leader's, not only, overall concept but the leader's circumscribing what the group can do and can't do, even though the talents in the group, if unleashed, could provide a different backdrop for the presentation of that music. Some of it is the material too. It takes certain kinds of material. Certain kinds of material will circumscribe individual performance as well, and when I say individual I don't mean the technical aspects of the performance, but the developmental aspects of it. If you are sitting there specifically making a record based on how many tracks you've got or how much time you're using per track, if that's upper most in your mind than that's going to be a value that's more important for you musically than the music itself. You have to see what's going to develop as a result of the music that you've chosen.
JazzReview.com: What's the most important factor in the music that you choose?
Ray Drummond: The important part of music statement for me as a composer, it's got a lot of levels actually, as a composer, you are always looking for clarity of line. You are always looking for the development of certain kinds of themes. As a composer, you're looking for ways that you can tell a certain type of a story. Sometimes, it's a problem that you're opposing and you are trying to attempt a solution. Other times, it's a description and you're trying to develop that description. When I say that I don't mean necessarily painting a picture of clouds and bridges and water, although on some of the compositions some people might actually see that with an actual pictorial representation that they're thinking. Usually you're after a specific goal. As an artist, as a bassist trying to interpret that material, you hope that that material is not only is fun to play but actually has some kind of meaning and encourages people who do play it to develop it. They feel that it's a story worth telling and, 'Yes, I could put my two cents in there.' It lends itself toward more extended forms as well. I know for instance that I haven't really been writing that much for this All-star Excursion Band until last year when Monterey (Monterey Jazz Festival) commissioned some work to be done in Monterey this past year for the Excursion Band. It was very challenging because, quite frankly, that band was a project that I really hadn't considered that band to be a working unit after the recording. I hadn't considered it at all. It was something that I wanted to do for a long time, my so-called Africa project. And after it was realized, it's taken on a life of its own. It was challenging. In fact, I told someone the other day that now I feel compelled to write that much more music for this particular group, not just a quartet, or not just a trio, or whatever, but specifically for this Excursion Band.
JazzReview.com: Give me a run down on how these compositions are coming to you now?
Ray Drummond: A composition can come to you anywhere. You can be sitting in a plane. You can be at home looking at a TV show. You can be walking down the street and all of the sudden, you have an arrangement on "Vignettes" is a good example. There is an arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby," I was walking down the street on day. I don't even know where I was. I wasn't listening to any music. I was doing errands or something and all of the sudden this whole thing leaped out in front of me. 'Wow, that would an interesting way of doing "Eleanor Rigby,"' so then I put that away. I think I put that in one of my sketchbooks. At the first opportunity, I was actually thinking of that recording, I thought that this would be a good place where I could put that arrangement. I'm never amazed at where these little bursts of information come from. There are times when you're just sitting there and you say to yourself, 'I'm going to write a tune like this.' So you start on it and you write it down a little bit and it's not complete so then you come back to it when you're ready to come back to it at some time. Creativity is not something that comes in a box. You can't find it on a can in a shelf in a supermarket that's for sure.
JazzReview.com: What has been your biggest challenge to documenting your music?
Ray Drummond: The challenge has been finding forums that you can actually realize some of these projects. Like I've said before, I've got a lot of things that I'd like to do and they're a challenge for any recording company. You have to realize the budgets of some of these projects that I've done. I've been fortunate enough that Arabesque has provided the forum to be able to have these recordings released. Some of these are not easy to do budget wise. Some of these projects we've had to spend some money. That's one of the challenges for the future.