Possessed of a broad, seasoned, vastly expressive tenor saxophone sound, Ray Blue is deeply rooted in his New York community, yet equally a world traveler and jazz ambassador, finding musical connection across the globe. #PEOPLE, his latest release from Jazzheads, is all about “Love of Life, Love of People, Love of Humanity,” the saxophonist declares in an album note. “Each song was chosen because it touched one of those universal feelings.” Randy Klein, co-producing with Ray, acted as his second set of ears, keeping the integrity and vision of the album whole. “It’s all about listening,” says Klein, “to the music and to each other.”
And the title track? Naturally, “People,” by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, made famous by Barbra Streisand in the ’60s in Funny Girl. Blue takes it at a medium tempo, citing Eddie Harris as a model. With him is the modern master Kenny Barron on piano, playing on this and three more tracks, including a marvelous duet with Blue on Duke Ellington’s classic “In a Sentimental Mood.” Bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and drummer Steve Johns, esteemed veterans, complete the rhythm section and cook on steady simmering heat as Blue and Barron go to work. “The song is about people who need one another, who don’t isolate or remove themselves,” Blue remarks. “They’re the lucky ones, even if it doesn’t work out. That’s an important part of it to me. Disappointment is a part of growth.”
Barron also appears, along with trumpeter Eddie Allen, on Blue’s driving minor-key swinger “Dark Berries,” one of four tracks to feature expert percussion work by renowned drummer and walking encyclopedia of Latin music Bobby Sanabria. With his multi-textured, deep-in-the-pocket approach, Sanabria enlivens Blue’s South African Guouma-tinged “Cross-Continental Spirit” and straight groover “Always With A Purpose,” as well as Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dreamer,” augmenting Blue’s tight and inventive working band with pianist Sharp Radway, guitarist Jeff Barone and drummer Alvester Garnett. “I’ve played ‘Cross-Continental Spirit’ with rhythm sections in several African countries,” Blue recalls. “Each one has a different twist — the Tanzanians had another way, the Gabonese had another way, the South Africans had their way. Essiet with his Nigerian roots, he has a groove with that as well.”
“Hard Times” is a Paul Mitchell tune from David “Fathead” Newman’s 1960 Atlantic debut (with none other than Ray Charles on piano). On #PEOPLE we hear Blue take the lead, dealing on tenor as the core quintet maintains an effortless shuffle feel. Paring down to trio, the program turns to trumpet legend Blue Mitchell’s “Fungii Mama,” which like “Cross-Continental Spirit” is “global in musical scope,” Blue observes. He, Johns and Essiet delight in the song’s telltale rhythmic hiccup and effortless good-time vibe.
Having captivated listeners with Barron in the duo format, Blue shares one more in that vein, a substantial exchange with Essiet on the beautiful “We’ll Be Together Again.” It’s in keeping with the #PEOPLE theme, and a title that captures Blue’s warm regard for the musicians and others he has met in his travels as a performer and educator.
Blue lived in Berlin with his wife from 2002 to 2012, so playing and growing contacts around the world has come with the territory. Now back in his hometown of Peekskill, New York, he shares fond memories of Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Beijing, Athens, Istanbul, Ankara, Dar Es Salaam, Libreville and more. He speaks of his tenor heroes — #PEOPLE as well — Hank Mobley, Gene Ammons, Stan Getz and John Gilmore among them. A fine bari and soprano player as well, Blue played alongside “big brother” Gilmore in the Sun Ra Arkestra once upon a time.
With regard to education, Blue cites Barry Harris, George Coleman and Paul Jeffrey as “people with their feet on the ground,” authentic creators of this music who found inspired ways to teach it. “I don’t call it teaching,” Blue clarifies, “I like to call it sharing. You gotta pass the information along, and be supportive of the people you’re sharing with, because they need that. It’s about more than just music, it’s the value of our lives as individuals and as part of society. You should work very hard at being a good person. It all goes together.”
New York Jazz maestro Ray Blue at the Music Village, Brussels
Listen to #PEOPLE on Spotify:
About Ray Blue:
Ray Blue is a soulful and tender saxophonist, composer and music educator. He is part of the New York scene and tours internationally. He has a big warm sound that captures you and holds you tight. He has 7 releases with his most recent projects on Jazzheads. His latest release Work remained on the Jazz Week Chart for more than two months, peaking at #7, and his holiday single, soon to be a classic, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas topped off at #2. Ray is earning considerable attention in the U.S. and Europe with his stellar band and his heartfelt soloing. A new recording featuring Kenny Barron on piano is scheduled to be released this fall 2021.
Ray was born in Portsmouth, Virginia and raised in Peekskill, New York. He was drawn to the music of Miles Davis and others but specifically to the tenor saxophone sounds of Stanley Turrentine, Gene Ammons, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Jr. Walker and King Curtis. As a teenager he played in the school jazz band and an R&B/soul band where he learned a deep appreciation for the blues form. Ray earned a Bachelor’s degree from William Penn University and a Masters from the University of Iowa in Clinical Social Work, where he developed a deep interest in society and social psychology.
Ray joined the New York jazz scene. He has built many meaningful relationships over the years. He studied at the Jazz Mobile and mentored with several jazz luminaries where he contributed as a leader, sideman and band member with some of the most notable names in jazz: Charles Davis, Paul Jeffries, Houston Person, Barry Harris, Ornette Coleman, Benny Golson, George Coleman, Kenny Barron, Kirk Lightsey, John Gilmore, Dr. Art Davis, John Patton, Benny Powell, Eddie Henderson, Charlie Persip, Wycliff Gordon, Bernard Purdie, Ted Curson, Joe Lee Wilson, The Sun Ra Arkestra, Cotton Club All Stars and many others.
Balancing his performances, composing, arranging and teaching, Ray was an adjunct professor at CUNY, Borough of Manhattan Community College and Mercy College from 1990 to 1996. In 2000, Ray moved to Europe, fulfilling his youthful ambition living in Germany until 2012. While there he performed and toured as a leader, sideman and featured artist at festivals, concerts and clubs in Europe, Africa and Asia. He was a cast member of the Ray Charles Show touring company in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy 2008 to 2010.
Ray recorded and released his first CD as a leader, Always With A Purpose in 2001. Further releases include; Live at Liars Theater I and Live at Liars Theater 2, Transvision, Berries and Blues and Work in 2018.
In 2005, he founded Cross-Cultural Connection, Inc., a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes jazz culture, performance, education and hosts an annual jazz festival. Ray consults and presents and conducts workshops, master classes at schools, colleges, universities and community institutions worldwide.