Songs in the key of love

Mood music: Trumpet player Justin Ray says love, inspiration and indecision inspired his composition “Casanova and Cleopatra.” He created the suite with a grant from the Arts Council. Photo by Frank Zipperer

Justin Ray’s “Casanova and Cleopatra” fuses jazz and strings in an original composition

who: The Justin Ray Quintet with Strings
where: The Altamont Theatre
when: Wednesday, Dec. 12. (8 p.m., $10.

Justin Ray's composition, “Casanova and Cleopatra,” evolved out of a three things: fantasy, experimentation and vacillation.

It’s a musical suite inspired by an imagined romance between two of history’s most infamous lovers,” says Ray. To Xpress, he admits, “I knew I wanted to combine jazz elements and string quartet elements, and I actually got a grant from the Arts Council to do that. I knew I had to get it done in a time frame.” But the inspiration wasn’t flowing. Half-joking, Ray told himself he should write about indecision, out of which a theme emerged.

“It was about love and inspiration. And who’s an historically indecisive lover? Casanova.” When Ray decided to pair the legendary Italian adventurer with someone who “equaled his guile,” Cleopatra came to mind.

The resulting work for jazz and strings sees Ray both in his element (the local trumpet player is in stephaniesid, performs regularly at the Hard Bop Explosion jazz nights and contributes to any number of local projects) and expanding his reach. At his Dec. 12 concert (the fulfillment of his requirement to the N.C. Arts Council grant), Ray will lead both jazz and classical musicians through the mash-up composition.

Ray took “the requisite piano lesson” when he was 6 or 7, and played low brass in middle school, before getting serious about the trumpet at 16 when he “found a teacher who was really inspiring and gave me a lot of music I liked listening to.” He completed a music education degree at Berklee College of Music and a master's degree at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It was while in L.A. that some of Ray’s friends auditioned for Michael Bublé’s big band. When those friends landed the gig, they recommended Ray. “Initially I thought it was going to be a week, then I thought it was going to be a summer tour,” he says. “It turned into nine and a half years.”

Touring with the Grammy-winning singer comes in bursts: five or six weeks on and two or three weeks off for a year, but then lots of downtime between albums. Ray had relocated to New York, but he was looking to leave that city. When his friend and Bublé bandmate, baritone saxophone player Jacob Rodriguez (who has attended a Brevard College summer program) started talking up WNC, Ray decided to check it out. Four years ago, he and Rodriguez made Asheville their home.

While there’s not the sort of jazz scene he was part of in L.A. and N.Y., the trumpet player finds “there’s an expectation of things happening here at a high level.” Both he and Rodriguez regularly bring world-class jazz to local stages; “Casanova and Cleopatra” promises to further raise the bar.

The composition works off of two themes, one for each of the iconic lovers. “There’s a part in the beginning and a part in the end that are the overviews of the world in which they’re existing,” says Ray. “From that point, I tried to manipulate those themes with different textures and different tempos, different keys. Putting them together and pulling them apart.”

He explains that when each character is initially introduced, it’s through a strings arrangement: “It’s a more intimate way of presenting it, so people can get acquainted with it.” With both the jazz-improv and orchestral parts of the program, “I’m definitely trying to exploit the different registers of those instruments to be masculine or feminine,” says Ray.

He also points out there’s precedent for this marriage of jazz and string quartets. “All the melody and harmony is based in music history — I borrowed a lot from Ravel and Debussy in regard to how the strings are voiced; and then the jazz parts are very Miles Davis and Art Blakey. I’m squashing those two things together.” But ultimately, even with Ray’s educational background, the composition process was a lot of trial and error.

One part of the program that’s still a work in process: When the audience should clap. At jazz shows, fans usually applaud after solos; during classical concerts the audiences may not clap until the end of the program. But too much clapping is a good problem to have. If in doubt, save it up for the second set during which Ray will perform music from his self-titled solo debut and his newest effort, Love Songs, with the Justin Ray Quintet (Rodriguez, Bill Bares on piano, Zack Page on bass and Michael Davis on drums). And there might be a new jazz piece to premiere. Says Ray, “It will be a whole night of original music.”

Alli Marshall can be reached at

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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