Minneapolis native John Raymond left for New York in 2009 as a young jazz hopeful on his way to grad school. He comes through this week as an accomplished and lauded musician with two albums to his credit and a third on the way.
His latest, “Foreign Territory,” has its hometown release Thursday at the Dakota. The reviews have been glowing. Writing for the New York Times, jazz critic Nate Chinen called it “impressive” and “a substantial leap forward.” The jazz magazine DownBeat proclaimed that “Raymond is steering jazz in the right direction.”
The new recording has the right stuff: strong concept, fine players, and music that straddles the line between straight-ahead and avant-garde. You don’t have to know a thing about jazz to enjoy these thoughtful, often beautiful, sometimes playful melodies and sonic explorations.
The concept took shape in late 2013, when Raymond realized that originality didn’t have to mean writing music from scratch. He could return to the standards – the songs all jazz musicians and a lot of listeners know – and “just deconstruct and mess with them.” He could start with the chord changes, a song’s harmonic foundations, and see where they led.
Several tunes on “Foreign Territory” are built on other songs. “What Do You Hear” came out of “I Hear a Rhapsody.” “Rest/Peace” has roots in Horace Silver’s “Peace.” “Deeper” began as Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean?”
For his band, Raymond turned to pianist Dan Tepfer and bassist Joe Martin, both established young musicians with solid reputations and open minds. On the advice of his producer, esteemed trumpeter John McNeil, he asked Billy Hart to play drums.
A major figure in jazz for half a century, and an artist who has helped to shape the landscape, Hart has worked with Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, Charles Lloyd, McCoy Tyner and Stan Getz, to name a few. Today he teaches at Oberlin and the New England Conservatory and has his own quartet with Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner and Ben Street. He’s a member of the jazz supergroup The Cookers. His name on a CD is a guaranteed attention-getter.
Which is why Raymond hesitated.
“I obviously knew who he was, and I knew a little about him, but I wasn’t that familiar with his playing,” Raymond said in an interview Sunday. He didn’t want to just add a big-name drummer. “So I did my homework. I looked up a bunch of records he was on, bought a few, listened, and thought – wow. Ok, I get it.”
Hart won’t be at the Dakota on Thursday; an artist of his stature commands steep fees, and Raymond couldn’t afford to bring him in. Martin was unable to make the date. Raymond’s band here will be Tepfer, Chris Tordini on bass (Tordini was last at the Dakota in June with Becca Stevens) and drummer Jay Sawyer, who studied with Hart.
We spoke with Raymond about his life in New York, the state of jazz, and the challenges of making a living as a jazz musician.
MinnPost: What were your goals when you moved to New York in 2009?
John Raymond: Ever since high school, I had this dream of being a jazz trumpet player. I got hooked in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I heard a bootleg of [trumpeter] Nichols Payton playing live at the old Dakota [in Bandana Square].
I just wanted to play this music. I knew that to do that, I would have to be immersed in it, and New York seemed like the place to be.
MP: Six years later, are you where you hoped you would be?
JR: I probably imagined myself further along. It takes a lot more to be a jazz trumpet player than I ever thought it would. The business of jazz is more nuanced than I had any idea about. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. At the end of the day, it’s an industry and a money thing.
My favorite trumpet player of all time is now Art Farmer. Art is well-known among people who know jazz, but he’s not Miles Davis, he’s not Dizzy Gillespie. There are reasons why certain people get the limelight. Some of those reasons are musical, some aren’t. I get the bigger picture now.
MP: What are your goals today?
JR: I want to be able to make some kind of income playing jazz, playing my own music, being a jazz trumpet player. I don’t want to be on the road six or eight months out of the year. I have no desire for that because I have a family. [Note: Raymond and his wife, Dani, have a five-month-old daughter.]
I also want to invest in the community I’m in, the musicians I’m around. We need to support each other. There’s no doubt there’s really not much money in jazz. Many players have to fight to make a living as musicians, and they’re some of the best jazz improvising musicians in the world.
Even if I were in the top 15 or 20 jazz trumpet players, could I make a living? I was so naïve about all of this until I moved to New York. Which probably worked out to my benefit. I was most concerned with what I was passionate about, so my naïvete actually helped me.
MP: What has been the best part of being in New York?
JR: I’m always thinking about growing, being better at whatever I’m doing. For me, being here affords me the opportunity to be around musicians who push me. I’m never in a comfortable musical environment here, and I mean that in a good sense.
I had a gig [recently] at Dizzy’s where the saxophone player threw down the most epic solo, as they do, and I was next. Sometimes I struggle with that because I’m thinking – whoa, that’s hard to top! But the goal isn’t to get the most applause and make the people in the audience go the most nuts. Or maybe that’s some people’s goal. It isn’t mine.
Ultimately, I want to play something singular to me, whatever that looks and sounds like. Jazz has got to be a very personal thing. The people who are able to communicate themselves are the ones who stand out.
I want to make a personal stamp on this music. To play it in a way where you might hear it and say, “Oh, that’s John.”
MP: What has been the worst part of being in the city?
JR: The wear and tear on you, emotionally and physically. It’s such a competitive, high-energy, high-octane place. Dani and I have found that we need to take regular trips out of the city, whether that’s up to New Jersey along the Hudson or coming back home [to the Midwest].
Sometimes you get so insulated here that you start to believe you’re the center of the universe and everything has to revolve around you. You get outside the city and realize that’s not the case at all.
MP: Has playing with Billy Hart changed you?
JR: It definitely has. He’s helped me be much more cognizant of playing to the audience. And he plays every single note at such a level of intensity. There’s so much commitment, authority and conviction [to Hart’s playing]. Especially as a horn player, I’ve learned how crucial it is for me to be as strong as possible. Not domineering strong, or tight-fisted strong, but having a lot of conviction. So whenever I play with him, I have to bring that on a different level.
MP: The title of your new album is “Foreign Territory.” What does that mean?
JR: The premise of the album is to take something familiar to us jazz musicians, and to jazz-educated audiences, and use it as a jumping-off point. To stretch it, change it, mutate and distort it and see where it goes. To take it into foreign territory. I think real magic happens on the bandstand, and for the audience, when you get into foreign territory.
What we’re going after is to be honest, spontaneous and in the moment. When you really have to use your ears and trust each other on the bandstand, exciting things can happen. That’s what makes jazz improvisation so thrilling.
MP: What will we hear Thursday at the Dakota?
JR: We’ll be playing all the music from the album. We’ll probably split it up over the two sets. The only addition might be a tune I first played with [Twin Cities-based pianist] Bryan Nichols last summer, a Charlie Haden tune called “Silence.”
MP: Why should people come to see you?
JR: I’m really excited to bring this band home and play this music at home. A lot has happened with me in New York, and in the past couple of years with this record, and I want to come home and say “Hey! Here’s what I’m doing. I still think about you all the time, Minnesota, and I still love you, and I want to share this with you because you had a part in this, too.”
Everybody hopes to have their hometown, their roots, cheer them on and support them.
MP: You’ve heard the saying that a prophet is never recognized in his own hometown.
JR: I know. I thought that immediately as I said that.
The John Raymond New York Quartet CD release show for “Foreign Territory” is Thursday, July 23, at 7 p.m. at the Dakota. Tickets ($25) are available online or by calling the box office at 612-332-5299.
This interview has been edited and condensed.