When Ray Bryant rose to national prominence in the 1950s, he was noted for his ability to meet the sophisticated harmonic demands of modern jazz while retaining the muscle and swing of old forms and the spirit of the gospel music that surrounded him when he was a child. Any performance by Bryant is steeped in the blues, even when he's not playing a blues.
Born in Philadelphia, Bryant (whose older brother Tommy was a bassist) gained experience playing early rhythm ’n’ blues and swing with guitarist Tiny Grimes in the late 1940s. As the house pianist at Philadelphia’s Blue Note, he had opportunities to play with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Miles Davis.
Bryant began to gain attention during 1956-1957 when he worked with Carmen McRae and appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge. After recording with the Jo Jones Trio, Bryant moved to New York, worked with Sonny Rollins, Charlie Shavers, and Curtis Fuller, and led his own series of trios. Of his early recordings, “Django,” (recorded for Prestige in 1957) features his trio work on a bop-oriented repertoire while “Alone with the Blues,” is a masterful set of unaccompanied solos.
Bryant, who wrote such catchy numbers as “Little Susie” and “Cubano Chant” and was never shy to show the influence of gospel music and soul in his playing, has worked and recorded steadily ever since. During 1976-1980 he was in peak form when he cut five albums for Pablo: the trio dates “Here’s Ray Bryant,” “All Blues,” and “Potpourri,” and a pair of solo gems in “Solo Flight,” and “Montreux ’77.”
Bryant continued his recording output in the ‘80’s with sessions for Emarcy, and the ‘90’s with “Tribute to his Jazz Piano Friends,” (1997 JVC) and “Ray Bryant meets Ray Brown.” (1999 IMS) He rolled into the new century with a couple of fine live sets for Label M, “North of the Border,” and “Somewhere in France.” These are reviewed here at ‘all about jazz.’
For many years, his trios have been extremely popular. But Bryant's cult status, not only among jazz listeners but with classical musicians and fans around the world, has been achieved through his solo piano recordings. Standing apart from musical trends and always being his own man, Ray Bryant has long been a unique, distinctive, and very accessible pianist.