From Aimless to Activist, Bassist Kevin Ray Lands on Higher Ground

Courtesy Karl Ackermann

Karl Ackermann BY

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When you listen to this band, there's still harmony; there's still time, and we're still trying to tell a story. I try to approach this band with a blank mind, an open heart, and a sense of humility.
—Kevin Ray
Bassist Kevin Ray has recorded or played with John Stubblefield, Oliver Lake, Greg Osby, Andrew Hill, Marty Ehrlich, Elliott Sharp, John Hicks, Hamiet Bluiett and Nels Cline. Ray has performed in the premieres of works by Joe McPhee, Leroy Jenkins and others. The bassist co-leads the adventurous trio 10³²K's with trombonist/trumpeter Frank Lacy, percussionist Andrew Drury and briefly, the late Roswell Rudd. The group, to date, has issued two releases, That Which is Planted (Passin' Thru Records, 2014) The Law of Vibration (Self-Produced, 2018).

Ray studied at The New School under Reggie Workman, his first serious, in-depth exposure to the broad discipline of jazz music. Following college, he moved as far away from the jazz scene as one could imagine with a managerial stint at Forbes Publishing and as a consultant with JPMorgan Chase. That period of Ray's life coincided with his association with the great Andrew Hill. Hill's appreciation of the bassist's talent and potential put Ray back on the path to creative music.

In recent years, Ray has been working in an all-star quartet with pianist Matthew Shipp, saxophonist Allen Lowe and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Newman Taylor Baker has, on occasion, filled in for Cleaver. Only recently has the group adopted a formal name—East Axis—and their debut album Cool With That (ESP-Disk, 2021) lands in late June. The group members have a long history of recording together in a variety of permutations.

At the end of May 2021, I talked to Ray about his life and career:

AAJ: Could you tell me about where you grew up and what were your earliest musical influences?

Kevin Ray: I was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, but grew up moving all over the country. I didn't really have musical influences, as I didn't consider myself a musician, but I liked the usual suspects: Beatles, Stones, Earth Wind &Fire, etc. Nothing too adventurous-the stuff a kid who watched SNL and was armed with, a subscription from Rolling Stone would listen to. I spent half my high school years in Anchorage, Alaska,, which was quite crunchy-chewy, and half in a very conservative small town in eastern Oklahoma. No jazz at all in either place; I had never heard the stuff.

AAJ: Living in Oklahoma and Alaska invokes the oil business. Was there a connection?

KR: Yes. My father worked in oil exploration until I was in college. Consequently, I moved 27 times before I was 12.

AAJ: What was the first instrument you studied, and when were you introduced to the bass?

KR: I started dabbling on bass guitar when I was 16. No lessons, just messing around in my church and in my bedroom. I didn't really work at it or join any garage bands or such. I went a year to this little junior college that somehow found out I owned a bass and needed one for their vocal ensemble: still no lessons or anything. Basically, partied more than one kid should do. I then kicked around OKC for a few years, half attending school, finally playing in smooth jazz and cover bands. The school music program didn't really know what to do with a beginner, and it was yet another place without a real bass teacher. Aimless, guidance-less, but I picked up a few things here and there...I was a really awful bass guitarist. At 24, I talked my way into the New School's Jazz Program in its second year. I finally got some bass lessons and someone to tell me about improv. Reggie Workman took me under his wing in my second semester, and in some ways, I'm still his apprentice.

AAJ: What is it about the bass that appeals to you?

KR: I love the sound of a well set up double bass. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to stay fresh with a chord progression, locking up tightly with a great drummer, and helping a soloist find fresh insight while not forcing them to go anywhere they don't want to. While I tend to be more known in the so-called avant, I'd love to play with folks like Helen Sung, Gary Bartz, James Carter, or Ravi Coltrane.

AAJ: The other musicians in East Axis, Matthew Shipp, Gerald Cleaver, Allen Lowe, lean heavily toward free improvisation, and they can head into some reasonably uncharted territory. How do you listen and adjust in that free-wheeling environment?

KR: I'm not sure there's a lot of actual adjustment to it. Reggie is very much in both camps and taught me that there's no difference between the two. I've heard Henry Grimes (rest his soul) say the same thing. I truly believe that. When you listen to this band, there's still harmony; there's still time, and we're still trying to tell a story. I try to approach this band with a blank mind, an open heart, and a sense of humility. In this band, I try to key on Gerald and Matt because I'm typically between them. Gerald gives you a wide variety of directions to go in. I try to do the same.

AAJ: Having Andrew Hill as a mentor sounds like a jazz musician's dream. How did that come to be? Did you have the opportunity to play together?

KR: I had just discovered Andrew's music in the '90s when serendipitously, he and Reggie Workman were doing some things together. I filled in for Reggie in a couple of rehearsals and soundchecks and got to know Andrew. There was something about my playing and attitude that Andrew liked, and he started mentoring me. He also introduced me to John Hicks, who really taught me a great deal. I wasn't ready for one of Andrew's working bands, but we'd go to clubs, talk daily, hang out for meals, play a bit at his house, and do the odd pick-up gig in Jersey. Through him, I also met one of my best friends and favorite bass players, John Hébert. That's a relationship that means the world to me.

AAJ: As a creative artist, did COVID-19 require a fundamental shift in your mindset? Historically, times of social upheaval, including pandemics, have sparked creative innovation. East Axis members are top-tier improvisers under normal circumstances but did something more inspiring kick in during lockdown?

KR: I didn't feel like a creative musician in the pandemic. I felt like a guy who'd lost all his work, musical, and otherwise, living in a country where the government didn't care if I lived or died. I had to use savings, borrow money, and fight for my pandemic assistance for months. My girl friend basically saved me. I sat in my house and watched the GOP go insane and lose all empathy, decency, and regard for their country or citizens. That includes hating people who have taken the, to my mind, sensible position that the police shouldn't be summarily torturing and executing our fellow citizens. Speaking for myself, there was no great inspiration. I didn't write a symphony or novel, and I didn't come up with a new way to approach things.

AAJ: At the peak of the pandemic, people were talking about "the new normal." As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, is there a sense that some part of the creative music world will never be the same?

KR: I'm counting on it. I do not want to go back to the status quo ante. I hate the fact that there are governors trying to squeeze people back into their awful jobs with no regard for their quality of life or their very health. I hate the fact that the simple phrase "black lives matter" is somehow controversial. I hate that corporations can be completely upfront about the fact that their business models rely on theft. I hate the fact that half the country seems to think it's admirable to commit treason in the service of one (stunningly evil) man. I hate the fact that people are dying in stunning number from meanness and stupidity. I'm working with a group called the Music Workers' Alliance. We're fighting for better wages, and justice in the digital domain, and a 21st-century Artists Project, either on the state or federal level.

AAJ: As a musician, has this time in history revealed something about yourself that you hadn't been aware of before?

KR: I've become mad as hell and radicalized as fuck.

AAJ: You don't consider yourself an activist but you worked in the Elizabeth Warren campaign for president. What led up to that, and what was that experience like?

KR: I was never a staff member but a volunteer leader. The idea of a Warren Presidency excited me so much that I signed up the day she announced an exploratory committee. I thought then and still think now that Senator Warren has the best ideas for getting out of the muck four decades of callous supply-side policies have led us to. I led a campaign-affiliated group called Artists With Warren that would recruit volunteers and engage voters about issues regarding the artistic community. On the ground, I helped found Westchester With Warren, canvassing and organizing around Westchester County, and traveling to places such as VA and NH. I'd never really done much political organizing before, so it was a new experience. It was an honor to help try to get her elected, and more so because the campaign went out of its way to keep us engaged and make us feel heard.

The East Axis Project

Free improvisation has a special place in a polarized world. It accepts and rejects jazz culture in an ebb and flow of spontaneous ideas. On the album Cool With That, we get the essence of the music's history from the inside out. The quartet East Axis is new in name, but the unit has been in place for several years, and its members are well-known. Pianist Matthew Shipp, saxophonist Allen Lowe, bassist Kevin Ray and drummer Gerald Cleaver are at the top of the elite artists in creative music.

In August 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic experienced a relative lull between peaks in the NYC area. The quartet went into a Brooklyn studio with little in the way of preparation. They came out with an excellent finished product. A lot is going on inside Cool With That, much of it simultaneously. These extended, improvisations require elastic thinking and focused attention to keep the music from going off the rails. "A Side" shows a command of endurance and timing as the twelve-minute journey avoids crossing the same ground more than once. Shipp and Ray open the topical "Social Distance" with slow blues, soon joined by Lowe's empathetic deep tenor. The moody, serpentine sax owns much of this piece and serves as a calling card for the under-recognized Lowe. At almost a half-hour, "One" is an expedition and primer in spur-of-the-moment interaction. Approaching frenetic at times, Shipp seamlessly guides the music with his abundant penchant for blending accessibility and freedom. His interactions with Ray and Cleaver are constantly setting new ideas in motion.

East Axis is a formidable quartet in every way; they encompass a universe, or two, of experience and creativity. On most of Cool With That, they create massive but loosely constructed structures without obscuring the music. It is a worthy addition to each member's considerable catalog of acclaimed albums.

A Side; Oh Hell I Forgot About That; Social Distance; I'm Cool with That; One.

Matthew Shipp: piano; Allen Lowe: alto and tenor sax; Gerald Cleaver: drums; Kevin Ray: bass.

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