Monday, January 22, 2018

John Raymond's Real Feels Trio: Connecting to a Youthful Pulse on "Joy Ride"

John Raymon and Real Feels Joy Ride Sunnyside Records  SSC 1501
With four years of collaboration and two previous albums under his belt, the trumpeter/flugelhornist John Raymond and his Real Feels trio presents their clearest vision statement yet as to the direction they want to bring their music . Joy Ride, due for release on Sunnyside records on February 9th, finds Raymond choosing to use the warmer, rounder tone of his flugelhorn exclusively on this outing.  It is that tonal choice and the fact that he wanted to write music that people could sing to that gives this album its aura of authenticity making it so compelling. With fellow bandmates guitar wizard Gilad Hekselman and trap master Colin Stranahan, Raymond weaves a gorgeous tapestry of songs that reflect a refreshing indie sensibility with a penchant for understated improvisational skill. The result is an album that is modern and electric.

The songs are a combination of five Raymond originals and five reimagined pop and traditional songs.  The trio has been touring the US and recently appeared in our area at Rudy’s Jazz Club in Nashville, TN and The Velvet Note in Alpharetta, GA to sold out crowds.

The title track and opener “Joy Ride,” is reminiscent of  the music of indie-jazz crossover artist bassist/composer Ben Allison and his collaborative guitarist Steve Cardenas’ work. If you listen to the Little Things That Run the World from 2008, where the trumpet/flugelhorn of Ron Horton was an integral part of the mix, Raymond’s music seems to have a similar sound and pulse. Whether he was moved by Allison’s trail-breaking ideas, or perhaps, like Allison,  the indie rock sensibilities of his youth led him to this place, he has used these influences as a launching point to form his own musical direction. Raymond’s bass-less trio instead relies on the dexterous Hekselman, to play both bass lines and guitar parts using his formidable skill and electronic looping. The music is dynamic and pulsing, sweeping you up in Raymond’s slippery, honey-toned flugelhorn sound that plays in direct counterpoint to the choppy grooves created by his rhythmic partners. Hekselman has a light touch and a deft command of the electronics. His playing has elements that remind me of the atmospherics of the late great John Abercrombie’s work.  

Raymond has an inherent intuition as to what pop songs will fit his musical conceptions. Take Paul Simon’s “I’d Do It for You Love,” which is played with a fractured cadenced drum line by Stranahan giving it a slightly quirky feel. Raymond’s tone is pure and warm when he plays the melody with little embellishment but with an abundance of inspiration and feeling. Hekselman’s clever use of bass lines to accompany his own guitar solo reminds me of the seven string guitar work of Charlie Hunter.  

Raymond’s composition “Follower” has a wandering, enigmatic melody where his burnished tone is most effective over a shuffling groove. Hekselman’s solo here is feathery, floating and something to savor.  Where the horn player and the guitarist leave plenty of space in their soloing, Stranahan dances on his traps with a syncopation that seems to deftly fill in the voids without ever becoming overpowering. As the song progresses the interplay becomes evident as the trio finds a slipstream, meshing in intuitive unity.

The trumpeter originally hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota and the next selection is a song that one of his North country influences, Wisconsin native Justin Vernon from the group Bon Iver, wrote titled “Minnesota, WI.” The song opens with some effervescent guitar loops from Hekselman, a sort of agitated but controlled chaos, with percussive accents and shimmering cymbals that lead up to the prog-rock melody line that lingers in your brain. Raymond ‘s clarion horn is like a plaintive call to sanity bursting through the fog. Hekselman rips on a very impressive electric guitar solo that swells with power and passion. The guitarist soars to the heavens as Stranahan plays with a heavy back beat. This one could well become a new classic in the world of creative improvisational music.

On the traditional hymn “Be Still My Heart,” we find the flugelhornist at his most poignant. His mellifluous tone transports you into a place of serenity and calm. The sparse composition, with roots in Americana, showcases Raymond’s confidence, maturity and growth as a solo player. Stranahan’s brushes are whisper soft and Hekselman’s guitar lines float in the air like wisps of vapor. The trio builds the tension to an excitable climax, with Henkleman’s filigreed guitar work, Stranahan’s fills and Raymond’s slurs creating an other-worldliness to the ending.

Raymond’s “Fortress” features an indie-rock vibe with its laid-back vamp and repeating flugelhorn refrain. The group uses a descending motif at the bridge to good effect before returning to the loping melody. Raymond is judicious when he solos. He prefers using long lingering lines over abrupt bursts of notes and smooth transitions rather than jagged breaks.

Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” is opened with a straight playing of the melody on horn before the ever surprising Hekselman creates an astonishing solo. This guy is the real deal. In one solo you can hear he has absorbed the electric stylings of Bill Frisell to the distinctive percussive picking of Beninesian player Lionel Loueke. Raymond overdubs himself, he and the trio play a repeating refrain as his overdubbed solo horn rises above with authority.

The road song “En Route” is another Raymond original. Hekselman finger picks the sauntering feel good melody. The guitarist provides a country-flavored electric solo as Stranahan expertly plays his brushes.  Raymond’s horn solo is fluid and spritely. Listen to these guys play in unison at the end with such easy familiarity.

The album continues on its folk and hymnal path with the dirge-like version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”  The 1964 protest song, is particularly relevant in today’s fractured world where common ground seems to be a chimera. Hekselman’s guitar is delicate and retains a country-inspired twang while at the same time adding sliding glissandos to the mix. There is a respect to the sentiment of the song heard loud and clear through Raymond’s nakedly sincere playing here. Dylan should be delighted by this skillful treatment of his folk masterpiece.

The closer for this excellent album is the Raymond composition simply titled “Hymn.” The unfeigned reverence with which Raymond plays, accompanied only by Hekselman’s scant guitar lines, reveals a deeply spiritual side to this musician. His music is uplifting and brimming with a sense of hope that is sorely needed in these trying times of divisiveness.

Joy Ride is indeed just that a joyous ride.We can only hope that Raymond and company will continue to mine more gems from contemporary music, play them with such informed and polished aplomb and in doing so connect to the pulse of a more youthful audience who wants the music of their generation being more thoughtfully portrayed. 

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