KEITH PRAY'S BIG SOUL ENSEMBLE
The Van Dyck
August 6, 2013
by Dylan Canterbury
Sometimes, it’s all a matter of perspective.
When it comes to the monthly gathering that is the Big Soul Ensemble’s residence at the Van Dyck, my usual perspective comes from the back left corner of the bandstand. Wedged snugly but comfortably between drummer Bob Halek and fellow trumpeter Terry Gordon, I get a first-hand glimpse into the mind of saxophonist/composer/bandleader Keith Pray. Most of my focus is dedicated solely to not getting lost in Pray’s cerebral and technically demanding charts; the remaining portion is spent listening steadfastly to my section-mates, doing my best to follow their lead and blend in as best I can. It is, perhaps inevitably, an experience that stimulates and challenges the intellect in rigorous fashion.
The evening of August 6th, however, was different. Sidelined from playing by a minor medical issue, I now had, for the first time, the opportunity to take on the perspective of a listener. My mind was not concerned with interpreting a smattering of little black dots strewn across several dozens of pages of lined paper, but rather on taking in and interpreting the multi-layered complexity of a 17-piece big band blazing continuously forward at full, unrepentant strength. The stimulation was now centered less on the intellect and more on the soul; an equally challenging, but vastly different experience, to be sure.
So what is there to say about this particular perspective? An awful lot, actually. First and foremost is the overall balance of the ensemble. Dominating my traditional perspective from the view (sound?) of the back row is the potent blend of the thunderous Halek and the mercurial brass. The perspective of a listener, however, bears a completely different fruit. The brass and drums retain all of their earth-shattering power, of course, but they are now complimented by the added dimension of a reed section that can hang with the best of them. The deep, resonant woodiness that Pray and his fellow saxophonists attain really does bring the band together in a way I don’t normally have the pleasure of fully experiencing – it’s that profound.
Then there’s the new perspective I have of Pray the composer. The common thread that holds such seemingly disparate musical stylists as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans together is their abilities to take advantage of their ensembles’ potential. Pray (as well as Albany’s favorite expatriate, composer/pianist Yuko Kishimoto) fits snugly into this tradition as well. The Big Soul Ensemble is, at the very least, a band of many stylistic stripes. Its range stretches from the guttural depths of Adam Streeter’s tuba to the stratospheric acrobatics of lead trumpeter Jon Bronk; from the silky-smooth bop of Lee Russo to the more angular extrapolations of fellow tenor man Brian Patneaude. Pray and Kishimoto are masters at not only pitting these various elements against each other to create tension, but also uniting them together in ways to create incredibly deep and complex aural expressions. One can experience this dimension only so much from the bandstand; taking a full-frontal audio assault amounts to a feeling not different from when I heard the music for the first time.
Of course, there’s also the new perspective on the musicians themselves. I have already mentioned in passing the range of their stylistic personalities, but I feel I need to expound upon this a bit more. The twin tenors of Brian Patneaude and Lee Russo are, next to Pray himself, the band’s most featured voices, and what a pair of voices! For both Patneaude and Russo, it’s all about their sounds. Patneaude possesses a tone that manages to be cutting and full at the same time, rooted in the lineage of the late, great Michael Brecker, but clearly his own man, not content with hiding in the shadows of a giant. On the other hand, Russo’s tone can best be described as the musical equivalent of a down pillow – pure, unbridled coziness. The contrasts continue with the higher reeds, as Dave Fisk’s subtle bluesiness and dry execution provide for a significantly different (but amply satisfying) alternative to his fellow altoist Pray. I’ve known Jeff Nania since we were in high school, and although his typical axe of choice is tenor, his baritone playing this particular evening was nothing short of thrilling; hopefully he’ll be revisiting the big horn more in-depth in the future. The trombone tandem of Ken Olsen and Ben O’Shea provides yet another layer of contrast, with Olsen’s more urbane approach being countered by O’Shea’s more pugilistic tendencies. Trumpeter Steve Lambert has long been one of my favorite musicians in the area, as his bittersweet lyricism is something I wish to have more of in my own playing. His counterpart, the aforementioned Terry Gordon, provides a raw, relentless sense of experimentation with a dose of good old fashioned power to back it up. Filling in the spot I normally occupy was Chris Pasin, whose blend of avant-garde harmony and old school bop-based phrasing makes him a truly unique voice on the instrument, one that I never tire of listening to. Although there wasn’t a lot of soloing to go around the rhythm section this particular evening, their affinity for each other is worth noting in and of itself. Pianist Cliff Brucker, bassist Lou Smaldone and drummer Bob Halek have an almost supernatural way to not only lock in with each other, but with whoever they were accompanying at the time. Maybe mindreading is possible after all…
Finally, there is, of course, Pray the saxophonist. By now, his reputation is familiar to most, if not all, of the regular audience members. Having played with Pray in a wide variety of formats over the years, I have had numerous opportunities to partake in his ceaselessly jovial musical antics. This night, however, was (to paraphrase Monty Python) something completely different. His first solo of the evening came on Kishimoto’s composition “Elements,” and what I experienced showcased a wonderful new direction in the veteran reedman’s playing. Pray’s explorations could best be described as the love child of Cannonball Adderley and a snake charmer, but as odd as that may sound, it was a musical ride that was about as wild as they get. Pray’s relentlessness didn’t let up all evening; he dug deep into every bag of tricks he has, from gutbucket funk to blazing bop to vocal-like squeals and honks. His brief sojourn into the world of the soprano saxophone was equally enthralling. Not once did he fall prey (no pun intended) to the common pitfalls that so many soprano men fall for, instead sticking with his own unique approach to the reediest of reeds. Experiencing Pray’s musicianship from the front as opposed to alongside is something I hope to do more frequently in the future, as his playing never fails to excite my ears.
A few quick specific highlights from the show: the fleetness of the reed section’s ensemble work, in particular on John Fedchock’s arrangement of “Fried Buzzard” and Sammy Nestico’s “The Blues Machine;” the surprisingly sinister rumblings of the Sam Rivers-inspired avant-hip-hop “Sam’s Tune;” the rhythm section shifting to a more 1960s Miles Davis vibe behind Pray’s solo on the otherwise groove-based “The Other Funk;” Brucker’s sparse but captivating introduction to an almost garage-band-raw version of Pray’s “Transconfiguration;” the mini soli section on Pray’s arrangement of the standard “Have You Met Miss Jones” (side note: this is one of the first charts I ever played with the band, and this is still one my favorite parts of the whole book); and, of course, the Paul Gonsalves-inspired tenor battle to end all tenor battles on “Blues for P.G.,” complete with full band playing riffs from Gonsalves’ iconic solo from the Newport Jazz Festival.
As I said at the beginning, it’s all a matter of perspective. Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble has, for the past 5-plus years, provided me a source of relentless intellectual stimulation, technical challenge, and musical exploration. Getting a chance to take in the band from an atypical location has now given me a completely new understanding of the band – the understanding of a listener, an understanding which draws and continues to draw crowds of all ages, shapes and sizes month in and month out. This new perspective showcases an ensemble that is powerful, unpredictable, and exciting. Most of all, this is a band that is just plain fun to listen to. When all’s said and done, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Dylan Canterbury is a freelance trumpeter/composer. In addition to leading his own groups, he has worked with such notables as Arturo O'Farrill, Jon Faddis, Gary Smulyan, Joe Magnarelli and Ray Vega. Locally, he has performed with Brian Patneaude, Keith Pray, Lee Russo, Rob Lindquist, and the Randy Simon Jazz Project.