TO The Record Shelf #3 – “Universal Blues” by Keith Pray

Some see the blues as a confining category, a system of fences, borders or limitations. To Keith Pray, the fences touch what’s on the other side, and imports freely cross borders.

The Rotterdam resident took his musical training at three schools here and another in the Swiss Alps; he teaches music on two campuses, plus the Japanese martial art Aikodo. He’s a highly hyphenated cat: saxophonist-bandleader-organist-teacher; not always in that order. So the variety of sounds and songs, of motions and moods on his new (sixth) “Universal Blues” album comes as no surprise but instead as an unfolding, like a big map.

In non-plague times, he leads the 17-piece precision-power modernist Big Soul Ensemble monthly at the Van Dyck, plus the UAlbany Jazz Ensemble; also the straight-ahead Keith Pray Quartet and the Ortet. He plays saxophones in all his bands, except organ in the Ortet.

Pandemic isolation changed his recording method on “Universal Blues.” He said, “Due to the pandemic though, with no gigs, it was the most budget friendly way I could make it happen.” He worked with drummer Bobby Previte, bassist Bobby Kendall (Heard) and keyboardist Dave Gleason (Sensemaya, Art D’echo Trio, and Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble), plus guest guitarist Justin Hendricks this way. “I made ‘mockup’ versions of the basic skeleton (form) of each composition then shared that electronically with Bobby Previte,” said Pray. “He then imagined how we would play it live and recorded his tracks. I then mixed the drums a bit and sent it to the other Bobby (Kendall) to lay down bass parts,” Pray explained. “He sent it back, and then I sent it to David Gleason for keys.”

Joking a bit, Pray explained, “Finally (not really) I put the sax parts on and began mixing.” Then came a border-busting change.

“As I mixed it I liked it a lot and almost released it like that (basically an acoustic record) but when I composed the tunes, I had ideas for electronics but never liked the sounds that I had access to.” Expanding his sonic landscape, “I invested in some new sounds and was in pretty good shape, again almost releasing – but still felt there was a dimension missing.” 

To push past this border, to jump the fence, “I began exploring sound design and created a whole pallete of new electronic sounds based off some very simple acoustic sounds that were in my music room.” He used such found sounds as Chinese medicine balls, udu drum, “even the air moving from my Leslie speaker (used with the organ) and even myself doing some throat singing!” When he added some synthesizer sounds and effects, “It was ready for final mix and master! What a learning experience!”

Pray said, “I have always enjoyed the role of producer but never had aspirations of being a recording engineer.”

In particular, the siren sounds in “Inyo” reflect a new sonic open-ness. “I thought of all of the sounds as colors,” he explained. “My cousin who did the cover painting started with a much simpler image and over time it morphed with layers of things that were not in the original vision. In my case, it was similar. I originally wanted electronics as part of the sound scape but couldn’t get the ‘colors’ right.” 

Then he began to hear-see a new kind of “right.”

“Part of the use of the disparate sounds is similar to visual artists using a slash of red where it doesn’t seem to belong and how with purpose it can become an integral part of the image,” Pray said.” He continued, explaining, “This is also similar to hip-hop and how they use samples that shouldn’t work together but become part of the new sound.” It also echoes how Asian philosophies (and martial arts) reconcile unexpected elements – “the struggle for balance between conflicting things.” He said, “I wanted to give the listener a sonic journey, things that might challenge the listener and things that may unfold over repeated listenings.”

Unfold, you know, like a map to someplace new.

“Inyo” maps a conventional 12-bar blues groove, but trouble soon shows up; picture a raid on a nightclub.

“Mongol Blues” calms things with a serene long-line melody that goes to the gym and gets buffed, but guest guitarist Justin Hendricks manages more than just muscling up the tune. Like adding guitarist Greg Tuohey to Aaron Parks’ trio on “Little Big,” the six string brings in color as well as clout.

“Grounding” follows a similar path, layering linked saxes, orbiting keyboards and bell-like guitar tones over off-center toms-heavy drumming and a bass line whose spaciousness translates as momentum. Then the saxes rule, though everybody gets a taste.

The rhythm section trio intro’s “South Sphere,” an easy amble at first. Right soon comes sax time, over a discreet percussion clatter and a cool bass line linking to synthesized swoops and swirls. The sax returns and it all swings sweet and strong under Pray’s most Coltrane-riffing of the whole album. Kendall’s bass muses thoughtfully before a cozy coda.

“Mourning Eagle” has a martial taiko fierceness in Previte’s aggressive drumming; a sax issues sparse calls, goes both bigger and outside while echoing bursts orbit the rhythm. Like the beginning, the end is all big beats, hypnotic and resonant, before a wild-card whirl.

“Three Layers” opens like a blossom in slow motion, growing in force as instruments join, including the guitar, featured only here and on “Mongol Blues” and “Grounding.” The piece detours, too, alternating moods of energetic agitation with serenity that eases into silence.


Pray played the Cock ‘n’ Bull in Galway on November 7, 2019. Tenor sax great Jerry Weldon guested with Pray’s quartet. Weldon played to the crowd in a flamboyant fun way; Pray played the songs, workmanlike, solid, and without borders.

As in live shows with his big band, sax-powered quintet and Ortet organ trio, Pray steps back for his band-mates to shine. I’ve seen Big Soul Ensemble gigs where he doesn’t solo at all. But he also leads with his horn, a confident and fluent player whose technique follows fast on his ideas in a powerful flow. For all the strength of his compadres, this is clearly Pray’s play, his show, his map.

He said, “I did my first session as a leader when I was 19 at Mountain Lake Public Radio” in Plattsburgh, though the session was never released. “I co-led my first big band around that time too,” Pray said. “I never wanted to be a leader, it just always seemed to happen!”

His training and experience as player and bandleader run deep and wide. “I moved to the Capital Region from Keeseville (in the Adirondacks) to attend Schenectady County Community College (SCCC, now SUNY Schenectady) for music, then went to (Crane School of Music in) Potsdam to finish my music ed degree,” said Pray. “Then I moved back around here and played full time for a few years until I moved to New York City for eight years.” There he earned a masters in jazz performance at Queens College. 

Moving back here in 2006, he started teaching in Schenectady public schools, where he remains. He also taught at SCCC and SUNY Oneonta, and now at UAlbany. “In 2014 I went to the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland (up in the alps) to start my doctorate in Expressive Arts: Therapy, Conflict Transformation and Peace Building,” said Pray. He finished the course work but not his dissertation. “I would rather leave the writing to writers!”

Pray maintains creative momentum despite the pandemic. 

“I get up and do some stretching and meditation, eat, get my 14-year old up for school, then I log into my virtual world where I teach high school band (all online) for the Schenectady school district,” he said. The photos he shoots on several nature walks a day around his home in the Rotterdam hills, then posts to Facebook, show a musical eye. Cooking family dinners, “I have really delved into cooking new things since Covid,” he said. “It helps clear my mind and keeps the creative side moving in new ways.” He practices sax and organ, trains and teaches Aikido and runs the UAlbany Jazz Ensemble. Before the pandemic, he also played regularly with his three groups. So, now he feels, “I’ve never had all this free time!” 

The ever-busy hyper-productive Pray explained, “I feel like I’m on vacation!”

Pray’s six releases are available digitally and on CD at http://www.keithpray.bandcamp.com.

SIDEBAR

The siren sounds threw me in “Inyo,” first track on Pray’s “Universal Blues.” 

They took me back to Japan. Yeah, I’ll explain. 

Living between Tokyo and Yokohama, I had a fine stereo and collected American rock, folk and jazz records. The first time I put on a Tom Rush album, the song “Driving Wheel” had a strange but compelling trilling treble riff. Interesting I thought; a bird-song-sounding accent that repeated in the same place whenever I played the album.

When I played that same album back here, that distinctive part of the arrangement was missing. 

How did that happen? Did the shipping process effect the vinyl? Did moving almost 7,000 miles from Japan to Schenectady somehow change the music?

I played it again, and again: The sound I’d heard in my Minami- Rinkan living room wasn’t there in my fourth floor walkup on the State Street hill. 

A bird in my bamboo yard there had “played” that part.

Decades later, the Eighth Step presented Tom Rush in Proctors GE Theater, a black box where 400 seats – all full that night – sloped up from stage level. Impresario Margie Rosenkranz, who has heroically kept the place running through venue moves plus the usual challenges of running a non-profit arts program, came to me at my seat to ask: “Would you carry Tom Rush’s guitars to the stage?” I said, “Sure,” and she led me backstage into Rush’s dressing room where he sat quietly reading. She pointed to his two Martins. I took one in each hand, nodded to the star and headed for the stage. A few fans applauded as I placed the guitars carefully onto stands. Friends clapping ironically, knowing I’m no star, or singer of any kind? Folks kindly welcoming an unannounced intermission act?

I realized, as I took a quick bow, that I’d forgotten to tell Tom Rush how Japanese birds sang along with him, there between Tokyo and Yokohama.

Watch, Listen = stream

The Legendary Characters Play Freedom Park Quarantune Streaming Series Tonight, July 25

From leading the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues Band Blues Band and Out of the Blues in the 80s and 90s, Rick Siciliano now plays what the drummer-singer cheerfully calls the “silver-haired circuit” with the Legendary Characters, a trio that entertains in nursing homes and rehab facilities.

The Legendary Characters, from left: Rick Siciliano, drums and lead vocals; David Gerhan, keyboards and vocals; Ralph Brooks, accordion and vocals

An expended Legendary Characters crew plays the Freedom Park Quarantune Series tonight (July 25) from Scotia, though locations don’t mean much in these plague times when live music comes to us via streaming. 

Siciliano hadn’t made music in public for a decade and had retired from his photography and video business, Digital Imaging Technologies; but he hesitated when a former bandmate invited him to play again. 

Then he remembered his 96-year-old mother’s complaint about the entertainment in her nursing home. “Most of them stink,” he recalled her saying. He realized, “Old people, they know good stuff. They deserve good music and to have a good time.”

Delivering good times was the blueprint for the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band, formed in 1982 as house band for parties of the ski club by that name. (Skiing comes back, keep reading.) Gregarious, a natural host and catalyst, Siciliano has long mixed fun with; well, everything. A leading commercial photographer, he answered the phone saying “Studio” as if there were no other; and his Albany Street workplace-residence hosted legendary Halloween parties and other gatherings.

His Out of Control Rhythm & Blues band became a leading cover band delivering R&B, soul and rock good times in bars and private parties. When he left that big band in 1994, he built another, the eight-piece Out of the Blues crew, a similar party juggernaut. By 2003, he disbanded it, tired of handling the band’s business including booking shows and being “band shrink.” 

An avid outdoorsperson, he became a ski instructor then, a member since 2003 of the Professional Ski Instructors of America. 

So was John Hall, leader, singer and main songwriter of Orleans. Hall started teaching in Catskills resorts between that pop-rock band’s hit-making days and a seat in Congress. One day during class, Orleans’ “You’re Still the One” played over the instruction-slope sound system. “That’s me,” said Hall. His class wouldn’t believe him until he sang along, as their jaws dropped. But I digress.

After Siciliano sold Digital Imaging Technologies in 2010, he became bus aide to special needs students in the Scotia-Glenville system. Then keyboardist John Dross, once Siciliano’s bandmate in Out of the Blues, asked him to play in a new small community band in libraries, nursing and rehab facilities. They sounded good to Siciliano who remembered his mom’s complaint and resolved to deliver something better than the solo acts dominating that “silver-haired circuit” where gigs might pay “15 bucks and a tuna sandwich.”

Originally a quartet of Dross playing guitar and keyboards, Siciliano singing and playing drums, keyboardist David Gerhan and accordionist Ralph Brooks, the band continued as a trio after Dross died of cancer. They’d been playing once or twice a month until “I got the fever and wanted to start playing more,” said Siciliano. He took over the bookings as the band updated its repertoire, dropping its swing-era tunes to concentrate on 50s and 60s rock, and became the Legendary Characters.

“When Elvis hit, I was 10 or 11, but the people we play for now, they’re older,” said Siciliano, now 70, sometimes the youngest person at a show. “They were out partying when Elvis came out.” He said, “We heard from the directors of these facilities that people like rock and roll, so we hop it up, we come in and get them going, we get them up and dancing.” Pointing out a spry woman who kept bringing her fellow residents to their feet at one gig, a staffer challenged Siciliano to guess her age. Late 70s, maybe 80, he guessed. The woman was 90 and a sparkplug.

 “They’re old, not dead,” said Siciliano. “They appreciate good stuff” – the stuff he grew up on, the stuff his silver-haired listeners partied to, decades ago. “The people we play for, they all say to us, ‘This was part of our life, and we enjoy this.’”

The Legendary Characters play 1950s and 60s jukebox classics by Elvis and other 50s pioneers, also harmony classics by the Everly Brothers and other groups, plus vintage country fare including twangers by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Ricky Nelson and Conway Twitty. 

They also take their “Legendary” moniker seriously. 

“We give people historical perspective,” said Siciliano. “We tell them the history, so before we play ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ we tell the history of why he wrote it and how he wrote it.” He said, “We talk about Buddy Holly dying when he was just 22, then we do a Buddy Holly song.” They reach through the songs to the stories, the legends. “We enjoy it, and they enjoy it,” said Siciliano. “It’s like being out at a club for us.”

Siciliano said return gigs allow the band to get to know the audience. “They look forward to us coming in, because we have more energy than just a solo act.” 

The Legendary Characters were on target to play 100 shows this year, but cancellations began with a St. Patrick’s Day show as the pandemic shut down live music. Siciliano said he’s grateful that the facilities where they play are 
“staying with the guidelines to care for their people.” But he added, “We hope it opens up for outdoor things.”

Meanwhile, such virtual streaming performances as the Freedom Park Quarantune Series brought a new way to bring artists and audiences together. Like the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues Band and Out of the Blues, the Legendary Characters have played Freedom Park in the Scotia venue’s 43 years, explained Siciliano, a board member.

For the July 25 streaming show, the Legendary Characters added guest players and taped at Turf Tavern a few weeks ago. In addition to Siciliano, drums and vocals; Gerhan, keyboards; and Brooks, accordion; the expanded lineup includes Bob Maslyn, bass; Gary Herba, sax; and Ralph Spillenger, guitar. Maslyn and Herba played with Siciliano in previous bands while Spillenger, a longtime restaurateur (the Bijou, the Bayou Café, Jillian’s, NaNola and others) played with the Students.

The Legendary Characters recorded 14 songs in their hour-long taping (versus the 90 minutes typical of actual live shows). Their show streams tonight (Saturday, July 25) at 7 p.m. and will be available thereafter, at https://freedomparkscotia.com.

Future shows, in “The Season that Almost Wasn’t”:

July 29: Skeeter Creek

Aug. 1: Heard

Aug. 5: Capital District Youth Pipe Band

Aug. 8: Raquel & the Wildflowers

Aug. 12: SIRSY

Aug. 15: 2096 Unplugged

Aug. 19: Given to Fly

Aug. 22: Big Fez & the Surfmatics

Aug. 26: Grand Central Station