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It’s like soul, man: Keith Pray.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Full House

Saxophonist-composer-bandleader Keith Pray thinks big about jazz

By Josh Potter

The gazebo at Rensselaer Riverfront Park is a standard wooden octagon. Situated along a grassy bank of the Hudson, underneath a highway overpass, among concrete pillars and peeling murals that boast the town as “Home of Yankee Doodle,” the gazebo may be the park’s one wholly Rockwellian attribute. The structure seems a nostalgic relic from a bygone era, and its purpose might puzzle a passing motorist on any other day of the year than this past Saturday, when the Clearwater sloop brought hundreds of people to the park and filled the gazebo with a 17-piece big band. The smell of hot dogs filled the air, and children were sticky with neon treats from the ice cream truck. On lawn chairs and blankets, spectators tapped their feet to a brand of music that perfectly fit the occasion.

The band weren’t playing standards, yet they sounded like Ellington, Basie, and Gershwin, the names that are synonymous with swing. As one downtempo number built from a couple simple chords, through a repeated blues riff, and into a slightly fractured melody, a discerning listener might have pegged the composer as Joe Zawinul circa “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” However, any metalhead who happened to be passing by with the window down could have ventured a better guess. Few would ever place Mr. Bungle, a California avant-metal band, in the company of the aforementioned composers, but when saxophonist Keith Pray, leader of Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble, first heard the band’s song “Retrovertigo,” he knew it would sound perfect when arranged for a big band.

Pray and his band have held court at Tess’ Lark Tavern on the first Tuesday of every month for nearly three years, and while they’re perfectly suited to a sunny afternoon in the park, the group are a club band at heart. What started as a hopeful gamble has turned into a monthly ritual where listeners pack in around the band, and band members—an all-star roster of local players—spill off the stage to occupy half of Tess’ back room. This scene, too, brings to mind images of another time, but images here are secondary to sounds. And, heavy metal covers aside, the sound is—naturally—big.

“I’m a big mutt,” says Pray of his projects (Big Soul Ensemble, Soul Jazz Revival, Keith Pray Quartet/Quintet, etc.), professions (performer, composer, educator), and influences. “I always wanted to play jazz, but I can’t deny where I come from.”

The affable bandleader recalls the roundabout way he first picked up the saxophone and got into jazz. Where he grew up in rural Keeseville, N.Y. (outside Plattsburgh), there was no music store to rent an instrument from. An older cousin had turned him onto heavy metal, but it wasn’t until 8th grade that Pray approached the school band director about taking up an instrument. Given his choice of any instrument, he chose the saxophone knowing next to nothing about it. “On my first lesson I put it together, played one note, and was like, ‘That’s it, right there.’”

“I was always playing catch-up because I started [so late]. It was never a competition, but I used to see everybody else and think, man, I wish I could play like that. Then I’d kind of catch up, find somebody else [to emulate], and do the same thing.”

Pray didn’t fall for jazz until his high-school band director lent him a copy of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and told him to pick up a Charlie Parker record if he ever saw one. “That was about the time when the movie [Clint Eastwood’s 1988 Parker biopic Bird] came out, so, all of a sudden I found the soundtrack, and it was amazing. It had the energy of heavy metal—the rawness and all that stuff—but there was something else too.” Pretty soon, Pray had amassed a collection of almost 70 Parker records, and that led to a love affair with trumpet players like Dizzy Gillespie and Maynard Ferguson.

In the next few years, Pray became pretty certain of what he wanted to do. A self-described “student of sound,” he started thinking about big-picture musical concerns in high school, even while he was busy honing his chops on the saxophone. He wrote his first big-band arrangement and continued writing with Capital Region-based avant rock band Caged Monkey. When he was 19, he saw alto sax player Maceo Parker (of James Brown’s band) perform at the Discover Jazz Festival and it left such an impression on him that he’s now named his son Maceo. “I was an ultra-conservative kid, growing up in the middle of nowhere, but within minutes I was up onstage dancing with everybody else.” Pray’s other major working band, the Soul Jazz Revival, are very much the product of this brush with funk.

After high school, he followed his cousin to Schenectady County Community College to study music and perform with the school’s big band. Upon graduation, he started playing regular rock and R&B gigs around the Albany area, where he first met some of the players who eventually would join the Big Soul Ensemble, like tenor saxophonist Brian Patneaude. He was happy to be performing in the area, but a conversation with local guitar legend Chuck D’Aloia convinced him to try his luck gigging in New York City. After finishing his Masters at Queens College, he started the slow ascent from playing in wedding bands on Long Island to jam sessions in the city, eventually getting called for regular jazz gigs. The big break came one night at a gig when he got a call from a friend.

“He said, ‘what are you doing first thing in the morning tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Just hanging out,’ and he was like, ‘Be at ABC studios at 5:30 for Good Morning America.’” The gig was with Paul Anka, who was doing a project called Rock Swings, reinterpreting rock tunes by Nirvana, Oasis, Van Halen and others, jazz-style. “It was perfect for me because it’s what I grew up listening to, but I didn’t even own a black suit, so my wife had to go to Macy’s at like 8 to get a suit. I got to work with him on and off for about a year and a half.”

In the summer of 2006, Pray and his wife moved back to the Capital Region to have their son. He started teaching at SUNY Oneonta, SCCC, and the Schenectady public schools, and the new home base gave him the opportunity to try something he’d always wanted to. “In New York, it was always hard to get groups together that stayed together and worked. Everyone was hustling so much. There were some great big bands in the [Albany] area: the Empire State Orchestra, which is a great repertory ensemble, and Joe Thomas’ band, which is a great traditional dance band, but there weren’t any club bands. They’re even hard to find in New York.” He talked to Patneaude about the idea and the two put their feelers out. Before they had assembled the band or filled out a repertoire, they’d booked a gig for Tess’ Lark Tavern, forcing Pray to hunker down and crank out some material.

“My idea was to have a lot of improvisation, to be a little looser than most big bands. I really love the freedom of the Mingus big band, but I wanted the ensemble stuff too.” Early on, the first musicians to return the call got the gig, and Pray ended up writing simpler charts that could be tackled by a variable ensemble. The logistics of organizing a full big band were such that Pray knew he’d have to have some flexibility. “I kind of set a strategy for myself where I started out writing more traditionally, because most of the musicians were used to that and I could get a good group going, then I’d start sneaking in the stuff I wanted to be moving toward. I don’t run the tightest ship, so, for my sanity and the ease of everybody else, I said, ‘If you need a night off, just let me know.’ So, there’s no commitment, and out of that has come a lot of commitment.”

The more comfortable Pray got with his ensemble, the more liberties he took with his compositions, penning more parts and, as he says, “messing with the color.” He wrote one piece that melded John Coltrane’s “Syeeda’s Song Flute” with Charles Mingus’ “Moanin’.” Others drew unconsciously on classic rock melodies and TV theme songs. Right now he’s working on an arrangement of “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath.

Anyone who’s been to the Tuesday night Lark Tavern gig knows not to expect stuffy jazz formalities. Pray was inspired by Mingus’ “workshop” format and, as a result, there’s a loose mentality that has allowed the band to take some risks and have some fun. On the bandstand (er, floor), Pray calls the tunes but never hogs the spotlight. Watching him interact with professionals, it’s easy to see how well he’d lead a student ensemble. He’ll defer to other sax players for solos, and his half-audible asides often elicit laughter and chatter from the band. It’s not uncommon for the band to try a new chart on the spot, and, lately, there’s been no shortage of new material as other band members have begun contributing arrangements.

“I just can’t wait to get the recording done so we can start tackling some new charts,” Pray says. He and the band have been meticulously recording their live performances for the past several months with hopes of finishing a live debut album by August. The group try to squeeze in one monthly rehearsal between everyone’s busy gigging schedules, but the element of chance involved in such an undertaking seems to be a big part of its enjoyment. Asked about plans for the ensemble, Pray says he doesn’t “want to know where it’s going.”

The answer recalls that rawness that first helped Pray make the jump from heavy metal to jazz and, to a degree, that has been a hallmark of the art form since the days when big bands on bandstands (or in gazebos) were the only act in town. It’s not quite reckless abandon, but it is the same flirtation with chance that makes jazz mirror life, and continues to keep it vital.

“I was playing Maceo for one of my students the other day,” he says, “and told her to describe the sound. She said, ‘full of life,’ and I was like, ‘Yes.’ That’s what I like.”


ROUGH MIX

BATTLE ROYALE, WITH CHEESE WZMR 104.9 FM, better known as the New Edge, has announced this summer’s Battle for Edgefest contest. One lucky unsigned Capital Region band will get the opportunity to play alongside acts like Mudvayne and Black Label Society on Aug. 1 at Altamont Fairgrounds; the winner will be chosen by fan response at a five-band Battle of the Bands (date and venue to be determined). Bands are asked to send their name, MySpace and/or Web site address, and a burned 2-song CD with track listing to: Battle for Edgefest 2009, 104.9 The New Edge WZMR-FM, 6 Johnson Road, Latham, NY 12110. What’s different this year? A few things: If you’re your band played Edgefest in 2007 or 2008, or if you are already playing for another radio station’s battle, don’t bother applying. Also, instead of a photograph, bands are asked to submit an “animated cartoon sketch of your band members DRAWN with CRAYONS.” The deadline for submissions is next Friday, June 26, so bust out those Crayolas! Check out albanyedge.com for more on Edgefest.

ALT.LARK WEQX 102.7 FM isn’t holding its own festival this year, but there really wouldn’t be much point, since the station is involved in the music programming for just about every Lark Street-area event. That includes Larkfest, naturally, and again this year the Manchester, Vt.-based alternative rock station will make room for a handful of local acts (usually around four, they say) to perform on the festival’s main stage. Bands are asked to submit a CD (with two songs selected for review), a one-page bio (with name, hometown, contact info, etc.) and a photograph to: WEQX, Attn: Larkfest 2009, P.O. Box 1027, Manchester, VT 05254. Performers will be chosen by a panel, and the deadline for submissions is July 10. For further details, visit weqx.com or larkstreet.org.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail tips and information to tigerpop1@yahoo.com or metroland@metroland.net.



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