The musicians who come and play at the Jazz Gallery are constantly gigging—but most aren’t in the middle of a tour with Lauryn Hill. It takes a special musician like pianist Ray Angry to hop between these worlds, both acting as an elite sideman for the greatest names of hip-hop and R&B while also pursuing individual jazz projects. Ray has recently appeared on records by The Roots, John Legend, Esperanza Spalding, and Miguel, to name a few, and brings a trio of Marcus Gilmore on drums and Burniss Travis on bass to The Gallery on Thursday, July 23rd. We caught up with him by phone while on tour with Ms. Hill in Europe.
The Jazz Gallery: Does it require a real mental shift to toggle between jazz and other worlds?
Raymond Angry: Not necessarily, because I’m always writing, even if I’m out here on the road, with Lauryn Hill or the Roots. While I’m doing all these different genres, I’ve been writing these little motifs. When I get back, I’m always in the studio, always working, always writing.
TJG: What musicians or records were particularly formative in your jazz training?
RA: When I get to college, Howard, I was at first a classical major. I had never I had played jazz in high school—it wasn’t something that caught my interest. When I got to college and heard Wynton Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, it was like, oh my god. I was just in awe of those people.
I was 18 and I used to walk from my college dorm to Blues Alley. [It’s roughly 3 miles, walking across the heart of Washington D.C.] I did this for a whole week. My friends and I, we wanted to hear these guys play. They would let us sit on the stairs and listen to the music. Later, they let us sit in for a couple songs. We were so eager to play.
I started getting hip to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn Jr., Erroll Garner. Geri Allen was my piano teacher. One of my mentors was Mulgrew Miller. During my classical lessons, I would start improvising on a Chopin, and my teacher would freak out.
TJG: What did you learn from Mulgrew?
RA: When I was graduating college, I was so afraid to move to New York. I remember sitting on my college campus and him saying to me, “you could be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond.” I moved, and I tell you, it’s the best thing I ever did.
I played my first ever duo gig with Mulgrew, at the Jazz Gallery. That gig [in 2002] with Mulgrew was epic. He gave me a whooping, but he didn’t beat me up too bad. He was very gracious. And you’re always gonna learn something from Mulgrew. Not just on the piano, just about life. I miss the tutelage.
TJG: How was the adjustment to New York otherwise?
RA: I learned a lot about synthesizers and programming sides. And I was exposed to so many different people. My first keyboard gig was with Meshell Ndegeocello. She basically handed me the manual to a Oberheim OB-8 and said, “read this, learn how to use the keyboard, rehearsal’s tomorrow.”
TJG: It feels like we’re in a real moment of hip hop and jazz fusing together, from the Roots to D’Angelo to Kendrick Lamar. What’s brought about this fusion?
RA: The thing is, because of the Internet, everyone is becoming more open-minded…Someone is gonna come in and say, “Let me put this hip hop groove on ‘What is This Thing Called Love.'” There has to be a melding and molding of the music.
For me, music has always been something for the people. Jazz used to be the hip hop of its day. It was jungle music. Now you have the same thing happening. Sometimes before, you missed the groove, the swing, the pocket. Now you have all these cats, listening to Herbie, listening to J Dilla. You have a Thundercat, and you have a Glasper. You have Kendrick. A rapper who loves jazz. I think that’s beautiful.
TJG: Are you challenged by your work with the Roots?
RA: Absolutely. The cool thing about them is I get to learn 30 songs in one day. I’m learning so much music and am exposed to so many different styles. It’s not just me jamming. It’s top-level creativity. I’m learning programming, arranging stuff for strings, producing.
TJG: What can we expect from this trio gig?
RA: Some originals and some standards and some new standards. Me doing my trio, I don’t wanna say it’s a homecoming, because I never left jazz. Everything I do is based off jazz, being creative, exploring harmonically. But The Gallery is like home to me.
The Raymond Angry Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, July 23rd, 2015. The group features Mr. Angry on piano, Burniss Travis on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Free with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.