On a night somewhere in France a few years back, Ray Bryant played another in a series of solo performances. He didn't know he was being recorded, but an unmarked tape of the evening ended up in a bag on his closet floor until Joel Dorn called. Dorn’s Label M has now released that tape as SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE -- making me wonder what other gems Ray Bryant may have lying around the house.
Fans of Bryant know his solo work, but for those who know him mostly as a sideman, SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE will come as a happy surprise. From the boogie-woogie "Take the A Train" that starts the set through "Django" and "If I Could Just Make it into Heaven," Bryant’s musical language proves to be a genuine fusion: the boogie-woogie grit of one who played duets (and shot pool) with Pete Johnson; the gospel hanky-waving of one whose mother was a church organist; and the dart and glide of a bebop pioneer who played with Bird, with Diz, with Stitt and Rollins and Miles. It’s all of jazz’s formative years rolled up into one powerhouse performer: Tatum, Jellyroll, Teddy Wilson and Erroll Garner, maybe a little Bud here and there, but all Ray Bryant.
It’s clear Bryant has made a study of the solo piano. He commands the instrument like a concert pianist: touch and power, control of the time -- everything seems within his reach. It’s when he stretches that you feel the breadth of his skill; he never comes near his limit. It seems straightforward enough until you notice a tricky tempo that never varies, or a ballad played at a perfectly consistent mezzo piano, or a galloping full-keyboard run. It’s the most mature virtuosity, a veteran using only what he needs when he needs it.
The settings Bryant has created are like a jazz orchestra in miniature. Some have very little improvisation, like "Jungletown Jubilee" or the tender "When I Look in Your Eyes." Some seem like variations on set pieces, like his tiptoe through "Con Alma." They’re never as simple as head-solo-head; each section is a bridge to the next, each tune a little world unto itself.
In the overblown language of today’s jazz conversations the word is too often applied, but on this night in 1993, somewhere in France, you could say it with conviction: Ray Bryant is a master.