Justin Ray releases a pair of big band EPs

THE SONG IS YOU: Though it began as a series of arrangement demos for Canadian singer Michael Bublé, the latest project from trumpeter-vocalist Justin Ray is a very personal project that reflects his belief that big band music remains a vital creative idiom. Photo by Frank Zipperer

Asheville-based trumpeter Justin Ray has been a member of pop singer Michael Bublé’s band for more than 15 years. After a long succession of world tours, Ray decided that he’d create some new arrangements of classic tunes from the big band era, with the ultimate goal of getting Bublé to use those arrangements in his band. But a funny thing happened on the way to that project: Ray instead ended up with a pair of releases under his own name. On a hometown break from touring, he celebrates the release of The Basement Cove Sessions and The Elephant Sword Sessions with a Wednesday, Jan. 8, show at Isis Music Hall.

The dual EP project began its life with a comparatively modest goal. “I started doing the arrangements of standards with the idea that maybe I could sell them to Bublé,” Ray says. “And then, as I started doing the arrangements, I thought, ‘I should demo them.’ And as I started putting this together, I realized, ‘I’m writing this for me, not for him.’”

But the project expanded beyond its original framework. Ray recalls a conversation he had with the Canadian pop singer/musician a few years ago. “There’s no original music in the Bublé catalog that swings,” he explains. “All the swing stuff is old. And he was mentioning how much he didn’t like new, original swing music. And I almost agreed with him at the time.”

That conversation got the trumpeter thinking. He asked himself, “Do I think that [swing] is dead?” And that reflection led to inspiration. “I was like, ‘Well, if I don’t think it’s dead, I’m not just going to arrange other people’s songs; I’m gonna write songs as well.’”

And that’s exactly what he did. Over the course of a few years — and in between his touring commitments with Bublé — he recorded two collections of songs. The Basement Cove Sessions features new, big band arrangements of classics; The Elephant Sword Sessions spotlights Ray singing, playing and leading a big band on his original compositions.

Though he studied at the famed Berklee College of Music, Ray’s experience didn’t include audio production or engineering work. Those are skills he developed after moving from New York City to Asheville in 2008. Despite the rich big band sound of his EPs, both were recorded using a select coterie of musicians. Local players involved in the project include fellow Bublé band member Jacob Rodriguez, bassist Zack Page, trombonist Fletcher Peacock and percussionist Matthew Richmond.

Singing wasn’t part of Ray’s bag of tricks from the beginning, either. About a decade ago, he started experimenting with vocals merely as a way of improving his breathing, a critical skill for a trumpet player. “And then, as I was singing all these things in my practice routines, I thought, ‘I kind of like these songs; I want to sing them in front of people.’” Ray first sang in front of a live audience in 2009.

Once this latest project had revealed itself as a Justin Ray vehicle rather than a collection of demos, the musician felt even more comfortable putting them together to his own specifications. “I wasn’t originally thinking about Bublé’s style,” he says. “The only reference I was using for the writing of these arrangements was how I wanted them to sound.”

An example of Ray’s fresh take on classics is “I’ll Remember April,” a standard recorded by countless artists in and beyond the jazz idiom. Most arrangements of the 1942 composition are built around a romantic string section; Ray’s reading swings. “I was trying to find the place between the slower string ballad stuff and up-tempo,” he explains. “This was the area where I thought I could find the most new ground.”

Ray’s new EPs aren’t a stylistic throwback, though. “I wanted to make swinging big band music, but I didn’t want it to be a ’20s/’30s tribute,” he says. “This is a style that can be vibrant and communicative now. I feel like everything is possible, even contained inside this genre that is 100 years old.

“I started this as a way to get arrangements for Bublé,” Ray says. “And I ended up with something that was more personal than I thought.”

WHO: Justin Ray and his Big Band
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 8:30 p.m. $20 advance/$25 at the door

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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