By: Jenifer Dravillas
JD: I really like how you opened your CD with an innovative jazz treatment to a popular R&B tune, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Tell us why you choose that song as well as the others on your CD?
DC: Well I’d been checking out some Stevie Wonder and I think Clark actually recommended that tune – it’s pretty much his arrangement. He’s always looking for some new stuff for us. Our group is kind of a democracy in many ways. It’s not just me dictating stuff. I think that’s what makes it a cool band in that we’re really open to finding new stuff and everyone brings stuff to the table. But in that case I had been listening to quite a bit of Stevie at that time and Clark came up with that arrangement.
JD: I particularly liked your interpretation of “If You Could See Me Now.” I found it very emotional and moving. Can you tell us what you discovered about that tune by exploring it at such a slow tempo?
DC: Well that tune is one of my favorite Dameron tunes and we tried to do something a little bit different with it. We reharmonized it by adding those chords at the beginning, going down in major thirds. I don’t know how I came up with that. And then we added on the vamp on the end of it using kind of the same idea but it’s a little bit different. It starts off with 3 chords so we took 2 of them going by major thirds and made kind of a pop kind of vamp at the end of it.
JD: So what is your favorite track off of Save Us and why?
DC: I don’t know if I have a favorite track, but probably “Night Dreamer” – that’s one that really turned out well. We took the Wayne Shorter tune and kind of made it a little more of a straight eighth feel instead of the swing eighth feel which is how it was originally done. There’s a really great bass solo on there and I think it builds really nice. It’s a little bit long but I like the way it turned out.
JD: I really appreciate how you reinterpret traditional standard tunes and make them sound completely modern and fresh. How do approach playing familiar standards and making sure it has your own stamp on it? And how do you make decisions on what mood, groove, and tempo to use?
DC: It really goes on a case by case basis. We still do play some tunes straight without doing much to them but we really don’t see the point in that any more. It’s not going to get better than it was. There are so many great piano trios. We at least want to add something of our own to them. Either something is reharmonized or one device we like to use a lot is to add a vamp. You can hear that on “Just One of Those Things” – it has one at the beginning. And we talked about “If You Could See Me Now” and there’s “Summer in Central Park” – you know almost all of them actually have that kind of vamp idea either within the solos or at the end of the tune. We don’t want to do it just at the end of the tune because that’s such a clichéd thing to end with a vamp. So we try to mix it up.
JD: I noticed on more familiar tunes you often improvise by straying away from the melody in favor of playing the changes. How did this style evolve? And quite frankly, is the melody even all that important?
DC: Oh yes, the melody is definitely important. I mean we’re not doing anything too crazy. If we reharmonize something it’s just improvising off the new chords – but a lot of times we just improvise off the usual chords of the tune too. So, it’s nothing earth shattering.
JD: How has the material on your current CD evolved from the material on your first 2 CDs?
DC: I think just by getting more into our own thing – doing more stuff with the standards. Our first CD was pretty much by the book for the most part. We did a few things to it but it was pretty tame by comparison. I mean “Elsa” is pretty much like Bill Evans did it – it’s pretty close. “Old Devil Moon” was one that got into how things have kind of evolved for us. That was one of the first arrangements we did where we came up with a vamp, we came up with something that differentiated itself. So that was kind of the start but it’s pretty much standards in a rather traditional way, and then starting with the second CD things got to where we’re putting our own stamp on it.
JD: You have a very interesting liner note inside your CD jacket discussing your views on jazz music today, the importance of being innovative, the use of the word “new” and generally speaking the problem of jazz being perceived and understood in our culture today. Did you receive any feedback from that and if so what was it?
DC: Well, I did have a lot of musicians either write me or tell me that they pretty much agree with what I said. I did have one critic who didn’t think it was such a great idea to put that in the liner notes so we had a discussion about that. He thought maybe it wasn’t good for my career – I don’t know what he was talking about. At the time I thought it was important to document it. It was our third album so it was a way to just kind of say what we are trying to do. I mean we spent a lot of time learning how to play the music in a way we thought it should be played as far as respecting the tradition of the music.
The point of the liner notes is that we’re coming out of this tradition and that’s always there – you know even on the latest album. Like I was saying we don’t stray too far from the chord changes. We are playing functional harmonies. We might be adding vamps and stuff but it all comes out of the tradition. We spent a lot of time and a lot of studying trying to figure out how the music works. So it’s a process. It’s not like we just decided we were going to come up with something new which is sometimes what you can get from people who don’t respect the music or respect the tradition or think they don’t need the tradition. You know, their listening history goes back just to the 70’s or to Herbie Hancock. You know, they start there. They start with Keith Jarrett or they start with Chick Corea – I mean those guys are immensely innovative, but.
JD: So it would be better for them to start with Louis Armstrong?
DC: Well no not Louis Armstrong – that’s a little different. We come out of the bebop era.
JD: So Charlie Parker or Dizzie?
DC: Yeah, that’s more like where modern jazz starts. I remember talking to James Williams who is a great piano player about it. I know he thought it’s fine to listen to Herbie, Chick, and Keith, but who did they listen to? Who did they grow up listening to? Where did they come from? In order to get to where they are you have to go back and figure out who they were listening to and start there and I think a lot of people skip that step. They just kind of start so they don’t quite get it. They don’t quite get the whole deal. There’s something missing. So that’s kind of what the liner notes are referring to. Some people think they are reinventing the wheel when in fact there’s actually something fundamentally missing. It’s not going to roll. So that’s kind of what our philosophy is – we’re really coming out of a specific thing and we try our best to expand on it however we can. I mean we don’t have any delusions of grandeur but that’s just kind of our philosophy.
JD: Well that leads nicely into my next question which is what advice would you give to any aspiring jazz musician? How much should they be practicing? How can they develop their own unique innovative style?
DC: Well I think by just being humble and not being like “I want to create the next new thing.” If you come into it with that attitude, you’re going to fail. You have to be humble. We’ve all spent a lot of time learning the music. You know that’s kind of what the first CD is about. There’s definitely a Ray Brown Trio track – the second track is just straight up. And like I said “Elsa” is very much like Bill Evans. Our influences are much more apparent on that one. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that – it was our first CD. We were trying to figure stuff out. So I think for a young person or someone who is just trying to learn they should just listen to that stuff and try to absorb it and try to absorb the feel – you know, how to play your eighth notes in the pocket. It takes time, it takes practice, it takes doing it – you can’t just say I’m going to create the new music. You can’t skip a step. It’s just like how everything today is compressed. Music is compressed. You look at TV and everything is quick edits. It’s annoying to even watch a sportscast these days where everything is just quickly edited. But we’ve become accustomed to it though. And that just doesn’t work with this kind of music. It’s too hard.
JD: So tell me about the Trio itself. How did you all meet and how did you all decide to perform together? And can you tell us a bit about your musical background?
DC: We all grew up in the suburbs here in Chicago. For me, I started playing classical piano when I was 4 years old. And I did that through the first two years of college. So it was obviously an important thing for me as far as learning to play the piano. I started playing jazz in high school because I always loved it but also because it was an opportunity to get involved with a band. You know you can’t play the piano in a marching band! So the only option for any kind of band was a jazz band. So I started taking private jazz lessons and one thing lead to another. I think probably the biggest thing for me was going to the Northwestern Summer Jazz Camp. They have a jazz institute for high school. I did that for 2 years and that kind of solidify things. That made a huge influence – my teacher there, Mike Kocour, you know, meeting him. So it became obvious that that’s where I wanted to go to college. So one thing lead to another.
I met Greg in college and Clark and Greg grew up together. So we all played together in college. Clark went to DePaul for a little while and then he was out on the road with The Mighty Blue Kings – a pretty big band in the late 90’s. So I guess one thing lead to another. Then after that Clark was here and we started playing together more and more. And it just became obvious. We decided to do the CD and it basically wasn’t any sort of Dan Cray Trio. I guess it was just one step above a demo CD. And then we were like let’s actually make a product here. So it was all a learning curve. It got really good reception. We got some gigs together. We really enjoyed playing together and one thing lead to another.
JD: How do you like playing in Chicago? How would you describe the state of jazz music in Chicago today?
DC: From what I’ve heard from people there’s just a lot less places to play these days – there’s just a lot less venues. We’ve been really fortunate to be tied in with some of the few remaining places to play like Pops for Champagne which just opened up. And the new room is really nice. It’s got a good piano and a good sound system. They’re making an effort to keep people quiet.
JD: Like the Green Mill?
DC: Yeah, they’ve been closing the door and putting up a sign. It’s been really nice. So it’s good to have that. It just seems like there are fewer and fewer places to play. But we’ve been fortunate to always have a gig. Or we’ve made a home for ourselves – like the place we play in Evanston. It’s a movie theatre that has a bar. They want to do music. They used to have just a solo piano but I convinced them along the way to have more musicians. And then they decided to do a whole remodel and put in a stage. So there was a whole process there. But it was like create your own opportunity. But that’s how it all started too with the first CD. It seems now that there are fewer and fewer mentor type gigs. I think that’s an important development. People I was influenced by didn’t start their own trio. Like my teacher Mike never had his own group but he was in so many other people’s bands. And that’s how he learned the music – you know, the elder statemen thing. And I don’t know what happened to that but it’s just not the same right now. So you have to create your own scene – create your own opportunities.
JD: Speaking of influences, what other jazz artists past and present do you consider most innovative and influential on your style?
DC: That’s a good question. I think anyone who just swings. I grew up listening to Oscar Peterson. Not so much any more vocabulary but just the whole feel being a big influence growing up. My Mom had all his records. Both Oscar and Ahmad Jamal were big influences. And then Phineas Newborn, you know guys who can just really lay it down. And then on the other side Bill Evans was an influence. And lately Brad Mehldau has been a big influence on me – in terms of a more modern influence.
JD: And if people would like to hear your Trio perform live, can you let us know where can they see you?
DC: Sure. Tuesday nights we’re going to be at Pops through August from 9pm-1am. And we’re up in Evanston at the Rhythm Room which is part of the Century Theatres. That’s in downtown Evanston by Maple and Church. We’re there 7pm-11pm on Fridays.
JD: Thanks Dan!
To find out more about the Dan Cray Trio, please visit the official site at: www.dancray.com