Ray Russell’s 70th birthday bash is a reminder of a bygone era when creativity, improvisation and inspiration met musical virtuosity full on, in an unfettered fashion.
Tonight might be Ray’s milestone birthday, but there’s not a slack musical moment in a 2 set show that is a thrilling exposition of his art.
He leans into a judicious mix of fusion, funk and what used to be called jazz rock, as part of a broad based musical journey that features the full range of his guitar tones. He’s strong on melodies and weaves consistently beautiful solos that cast their spell as they rise, hover and then come to rest on the band’s subtly layered sound.
He shifts from some sonorous openings to moments of focussed intensity leading to an aural delirium and back again. He’s a feel player who can subtly take an introspective opening into the realms of the ethereal with stellar tonal excursions.
His music may fleetingly evoke Miles Davis, Jeff Beck and crossover in the manner of Gil Evans, but he rarely stays in one musical pocket for too long.
He’s also not averse to using modern technology to help his musical expression and when his subtle combination of delicate touch and effects pedals have taken him as far as he can go, he adds another layer with a gizmo on the spacey ‘Free Way Jam’.
He’s a generous band leader who encourages everyone to contribute fully. The extraordinary drummer Mark Mondesir for example, mixes crisp attacks with ebullient drums fills to propel the uplifting ‘Shards On Providence’, as Ray locks in with keyboard player Geoff Castle on a number that has little stop and start pulses.
For a significant portion of the 2 set show Ray is in tandem with the redoubtable Mo Foster, whose luscious bass notes could anchor a ship, while the contrast between Chris Biscoe’s earthy tenor and his higher register soprano sax brings variety, before he merges into one of those magical moments when the band coalesces as one.
Biscoe is a fellow tone convert who shapes and moulds melodies to his own end and acts as the perfect foil for some of Russell’s more angular excursions.
The band frequently settle on a layered sound that is glued together by keyboard player Geoff Castle who seamlessly shifts from synth fills to eloquent solos.
Russell and Castle combine effortlessly on ‘Blue Shoes No Dance’, a number full of space, time and more of Ray’s wonderful tonal explorations, as he deftly uses his whammy bar to dig deep for emotion.
When Mo takes a break, Ray’s son George adds his own musical imprint with a Chapman stick, setting up the intro to a wonderful cover of ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.’
And while the energetic Gill Evans favourite ‘Juna The Last’ perfectly bookends the first set, Billy Cobham’s ‘Stratus’ – featuring the excellent Phil Hilborne on second guitar and the brusque Ralph Salmins on drums – is a significant reminder of the fusion’s early 70′s hegemony.
A roll call of guests includes vocalist Linda Hayes who adds a spirited rendition of Bonnie Rait’s ‘Love Sneaking Up On You’, while Denny McCaffrey adds a gritty vocal on ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’, in between more sterling guitar work from Ray and Phil.
Perhaps the moment of the night though, comes near the end when Ray engages Phil Hilborne in a stunning harmony guitar duet on the incendiary ‘Freeway Jam’, which works its way to a breathless crescendo.
In keeping with his understated persona, Ray seems momentary nonplussed as what to play next, but settles for an old RMS piece which suggests that whatever the limited commercial shelf life of fusion, when its played with this much passion there will always be a generation of fans wanting more.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Prakash Prak 1-4
Dave Stark (songlink) 2-6
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