Ray Russell: Playing with Time

Ian Patterson By

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Each time guitarist/composer Ray Russell releases a new album, it feels like a comeback. Now, More than Ever, Russell's debut on the Abstract Logix label, comes seven years after Goodbye Svengali (Cuneiform Records, 2006), his heartfelt tribute to composer Gil Evans. Although Russell may drop off the radar for periods of time, he's never really far away from our ears. For much of the past 30 years, Russell has composed award-winning music for a plethora of hugely popular TV shows and films as well as countless sessions for the likes of singers Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye and David Bowie.

Russell's Now, More than Ever reunites the guitarist with long-term collaborators and old sparring partners, drummers Gary Husband and Ralph Salmins, bassists Mo Foster, Jimmy Johnson and Anthony Jackson and keyboard player Jimmy Watson, in an energized collective performance that brings together the various strands of Russell's long and varied career.

From his session-musician days in the 1960s, Russell went on to play with keyboardist/singer Georgie Fame and the Blue Notes and singer- songwriter Cat Stevens. But jazz was the music that motivated Russell more than anything, and he made a series of critically acclaimed records in the late 1960s and early 1970s that reflected his free-jazz roots. A brief stint in the British jazz-rock band Nucleus in 1971 was happily recorded and came to light with Live in Bremen (Cuneiform, 2003), one of several Russell releases that have been remastered and reissued in the last decade.

Jazz, R&B, rock, fusion, space-rock and more ambient sounds: Russell has turned his hand to them all since the 1960s, and he successfully fuses all these influences on Now, More than Ever. His guitar playing has never sounded as good, and it's easy to see why he's regarded as a musician's musician. And, with a little bit of luck, we won't have to wait quite so long for his next recording, as according to the man himself the creative juices are flowing.

All About Jazz: Did these songs come together in a burst of creativity, or have they been brewing slowly over a period of time?

Ray Russell: It took about a year and a half to get it finished, to get everybody's availability. It's been a bit of an on-and-off project, but I am pleased with the way it's turned out compositionally, and obviously it was great to have so many of my favorite musicians playing on it.

AAJ: Had you tried any of the music out live before you started recording?

RR: Yeah, a couple. The track "Rubber Chicken Diner" started off with a working title of "Country Boy," which was inspired by the fact that many years ago I used to play with [singer] Chris Farlowe and guitarist Albert Lee. Albert was into country music, and the riff at the start of "Rubber Chicken Diner" is really a nod to what we used to play then. A lot of these compositions have a little bit of history to them, although some I wrote in I wrote in a burst of inspiration [laughs].

AAJ: The music on Now, More than Ever sounds like a melting pot of all the different periods of your career and all your influences: the R&B of Georgie Fame, through the jazz and the rock and the less obvious categories of music that you've explored over the years. How do you see the music on this record?

RR: I do see it as a true fusion of my music. It's always difficult when people want to call you this, that or the other, but I've always played different kinds of music. For me, there's never been a border line between jazz and pop; it's all to do with what you give to the song and what energy you put in. I was brought up in the rock 'n' roll era and then listened to jazz players, so that's always been part of my music. This album does represent some of these different facets, and to get it together compositionally was a test, really. That's why it took a while. For example, "Way Back Now" I rewrote four or five times to get it how I wanted it to sound.

AAJ: The track that opens the record, "The Island," goes through quite a few changes stylistically. Was that a difficult one to bring together?

RR: I wrote that for Gary [Husband] because he's very good at dropping into a half time or a different approach in the same tempo. I developed it from things we do live; I would develop a riff, and he would play over it. When the track goes into the R&B section, it's fun. It's just a way of playing with time.

AAJ: Your son, George Baldwin, plays on this track. Is this the first time you've recorded together?

RR: He's played gigs with me, but we haven't recorded on an album together. It was a thrill. He sounds really good. Gary likes playing with him, so I thought he should really play on this track. It's quite a difficult track in some ways, but I think he nailed it.

AAJ: He really does. Ray, Now, More than Ever comes seven or so years after Goodbye Svengali (Cuneiform, 2006). Why was there such a large gap between the two recordings?

RR: It is a while. It's amazing. I'm afraid time passes. I was doing more TV music and gigs. I was toying with ideas on and off for ages, but I don't really see the point in recording an album just because six months have gone by. That album, Goodbye Svengali, was more reflective; it was a tribute to Gil Evans. I've turned into a hooligan in my old age. I've turned back to the days of rock, and I kind of like it. Hence, Now, More than Ever is more outgoing.

AAJ: You've spent a lot of the past 30 years composing award-winning music for television and film. Is this a form of music-making that you get a lot of satisfaction from, or is it, to evoke a phrase, the day job?

RR: [Laughs] I really enjoy doing it. I really enjoy being part of that illusion. It's a different way of expressing yourself. If people come out whistling the theme, because they can't come out whistling the special effects, you've done your job. That's what I try to do with the TV music.

It's another dimension, another language. You're telling a story that runs alongside the visuals. It ranges from the melodic to chase sequences or more atmospheric sequences. Once you've seen the picture, you can't really disconnect the music from the picture.

AAJ: Now, More than Ever is out on the Abstract Logix label. How did you come to be on Souvik Dutta's label?

RR: I wanted to be on this label because there are so many great musicians on this label, especially guitar players. I thought it would be a great label for the album. I made contact with him and asked him if I could send him some music to see what he thinks. He loved it and said, "Yeah, we'll do it." It was really as simple as that. It was just like the old days where you could call people up, and they answered the phone. I sent him the masters, the info and the pictures, and he put it out. I can't praise Souvik enough for being such a great music fan.

AAJ: It sounds great, like all the releases on Abstract Logix. On Now, More than Ever, you've surrounded yourself with a lot of familiar faces and long-term collaborators. Was it a no-brainer to bring in people like Gary Husband, Mo Foster, Jimmy Johnson and Anthony Jackson?

RR: Yeah, a no-brainer, indeed. I wanted to have my favorite musicians, and I've played with everybody. I hadn't played with Anthony for a few years, and I kind of pined for his playing. Jimmy, too. I missed them, and it was an opportunity to get them on my record. Anthony was in London playing Ronnie Scotts with [pianist] Hiromi, and so I booked some studio time. With Jimmy, I sent him the files, and he sent his bass parts back—a phenomenon of the modern age. It's an honor to play with these guys. They all have a sonic signature, and to me this album is about that. You know who everybody is immediately from their playing.

AAJ: In an ideal world, would you have had the same three or four musicians on every track, or did you write with specific musicians in mind for each composition?

RR: Yeah, I had people in mind for specific tracks. For example, "Way Back Now" with Anthony—I knew it would be up his street. I knew he would nail that riff. The tracks were purposely built for the musicians.

AAJ: With Abstract Logix, you're on the same label now as guitarist John McLaughlin. Did you run across each other much in your London session-musician days in the 1960s?

RR: Well, one of my first gigs was with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, and I took over from John. The story is that I was at one of my first-ever sessions—I wasn't fully on the scene. It was at Lansdowne Studios, one of many studios that have gone now, but a lot of sessions were done there. There were three guitar players on the session; one was John, there was me, and the other was Jimmy Page. John asked if we'd like to play with Georgie and join the band because he was going to America. Jimmy said he was going to get out of playing sessions to form a band with Robert Plant.

That was that session, so you know what happened there. There was John going off to play with Miles Davis, and there's Jimmy going off to form Led Zeppelin. He didn't know it was called that then.

AAJ: It was The New Yardbirds first, wasn't it?

RR: The New Yardbirds, that's right. So I met up with Georgie and John at Ken Colyer's place, Studio 51, and in the middle of our jam together, to make sure we got on, [promoter] Chas Chandler came down and said, "I've got this guy I want you to hear. He sounds great," and in walked [guitarist] Jimi Hendrix. He borrowed our gear and played for five or ten minutes. It was a very strange chain of events. It didn't mean much at the time, but when you look back on it, it was one of those extraordinary things that used to happen in those days.

AAJ:. The birth of Davis' In a Silent Way band and the birth of Led Zeppelin at around the same time got you the gig with Georgie Fame. And in walked Jimi Hendrix. What an amazing situation!

RR: Wasn't it? It was an important moment.

AAJ: They seemed like such extraordinary times.

RR: They were extraordinary. One of my first gigs was with [singer/songwriter] Cat Stevens. We did a tour of Sweden where Cat Stevens was headlining, and Jimi [Hendrix] was the support band. Of course, we all used to watch Jimi, and he was fantastic. It was outrageous. I remember one time, somewhere in Sweden, I was lying in my bed trying to get to sleep, and Jimi was knocking on my window, which obviously was on the ground floor. He'd got locked out. I let him in, and we had a cup of tea and chatted about music for 10 minutes, and then he went to bed. It doesn't mean much, but it's strange that that sort of thing would happen then.
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