Ray Blue – Work(Jazzheads JH1235. Review Peter Vacher)
Tenorist Ray Blue is something of an under-sung talent. Not back at home in New York perhaps but over here, certainly. A busy presence on the Harlem scene with a constant flurry of gigs, he tours in Europe every year, travels world-wide and is clearly popular everywhere he goes. He has an organ trio, takes quartet gigs, and teaches extensively. Blue has worked with everyone from Eddie Henderson to Sun Ra, via the Charlie Persip Super Band and more, and released a clutch of CDs on out-of-the-way local labels.
So why don’t we know more about him over here? Aside from a one-off gig at Pizza Express in April 2018 which I reviewed HERE, Blue might as well be based in Timbuktu as far as UK audiences are concerned. Prior to this in-and-out London appearance, shoehorned into his regular European series, I’d heard Blue in New York at a jam session at Local 208 HQ with fellow-members of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band and been impressed. It’s that band’s eagle-eyed manager Dr Al Vollmer who has the pleasing habit of finding unsung talents among the wider African American jazz community and giving them added exposure. Blue was as impressive then as he turned out to be in London two years ago. Now comes this new CD which further cements his claim on our attention.
New York-based label Jazzheads have a somewhat eclectic range of releases and their tag-line for Blue’s album is that it combines ‘straight ahead jazz with rhythmic groove’. So not the most demanding of musical situations perhaps but one that emphasizes the deep-toned Blue’s balanced capability, this generally similar to that of Houston Person, another fine tenor-saxophonist who tends to stay out of trouble, recording-wise. A lengthy, relaxed reading of ‘That’s All’ plays to Blue’s tonal strengths and his combination on three tracks with the Watrous-like trombonist Ron Wilkins, another of Doc Vollmer’s discoveries, works well. George Coleman’s ‘Amsterdam After Dark’ over, yes, a rhythmic groove, has them in upbeat mode, Jeff Barone adding a neat guitar interlude.
While one might hanker for edgier company and a grittier approach from Blue – in my hearing, that’s certainly within his compass – this is essentially a feel-good album, always engaging and coloured by a kind of hard-won playing expertise that’s hard to replicate. Blue can certainly swing, as on ‘Our Day Will Come’ with Steve Johns setting the pace, while the final duo version of ‘That’s All’ , taken very slow, with guest pianist Kirk Lightsey similarly lyrical, is a peach. Sharp Radway, a new name to me, is worth hearing too.
Ray Blue [ts]; Ron Wilkins [tb]; Sharp Radway, Kirk Lightsey, Benito Gonzalez [p]; Jeff Barone [g]; Essiet Okon Essiet, Beldon Bullock [b]; Neil Clark [perc]; Steve Johns [d]. Rec. 2019, New York