Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble Takes Big Band Music Into the 21st Century

Keith Pray leading his ensemble at Tess' Lark Tavern
Keith Pray leading his ensemble at Tess' Lark Tavern

Walk into Tess’ Lark Tavern in Albany on the first Tuesday of any month, and you’ll witness one of Nippertown’s most amazing musical phenomenons. Seventeen of the region’s best jazz musicians – that’s right, 17 – spilling off the small stage into the audience and playing their hearts out on fresh, challenging big-band music composed by some of the most gifted area composers.

Tess’ has been home base for Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble for more than three years, and now bandleader, alto saxman and chief composer Keith Pray is releasing the big band’s debut album, “Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble Live at the Lark Tavern” on his own indie label, Praynation Records.

The album is jam-packed with nine original tunes, each brimming over with crackling musical interplay, catchy riffs and passionate solos. On Sunday (January 31), the Big Soul Ensemble will celebrate the album’s release with two shows at – where else? – Tess’ Lark Tavern. Showtimes are 4 and 5:45pm, and admission is just $5 per show.

Keith Pray sat down earlier this week to tell us a little about BSE’s origins, the recording project and the band’s direction.

Q: What reasons led you to form BSE?

PRAY: I love writing music – especially for large ensembles. I started trying to write songs for a big band in high school (very primitive) and later in college. During summer break, maybe at the end of my freshman or sophomore year, I tried to run a big band with a bass player fiend of mine in Plattsburgh. We only did one gig, but it was fun trying to get the material together (once again primitive). Later, in my undergrad days, I took an arranging class at the Crane School of Music (Potsdam) and continued writing. After returning to the Capital Region in 1995, I did a few arrangements, and one later got played by the Empire Jazz Orchestra.

I moved to New York City in 1999, and I studied arranging with Michael Philip Mossman, who is one of the premier arrangers in NYC. His classes helped me focus my work a lot more and write more.

When I moved back here in 2006, I had a plan to put a big-band together and started writing again. It isn’t worth writing for a large ensemble if there is no one to play the music, so it has been really great to have such a consistent band – especially for this long.

Q: Why do you think so many of the region’s top musicians are participating?

PRAY: From what they tell me, the musicians in the band like the fact that it’s original music and arrangements. And that I always throw in some curve balls to keep everyone on their toes – especially me.

There are several big bands in the region, which is a great thing. However, we offer something different to the area, and although we do some private function gigs here and there, it’s really about the music and having a great time playing it.

Q: In the past few years you’ve been invited to play at Albany’s Riverfront Jazz Festival and Schenectady’s A Place For Jazz, but Tess’ Lark Tavern is BSE’s musical home. How did that come about?

PRAY: In the summer of 2006, before my son Maceo was born, I knew that we were moving back to this area and that I wanted to do a big band. I made a bunch calls to see if anyone was interested in doing it, and to my surprise many called back and said ‘yes!’

The next problem was a venue to do a monthly rehearsal/gig. I didn’t think we would have a crowd, so I thought we would be mostly rehearsing at the venue.

The issue of finding a venue was the obvious problem, as we have 17 pieces. I checked out several possibilities, but most were not big enough. Then Brian Patneaude suggested the Lark Tavern and that we should talk to Tess Collins, the owner. We spoke with her in early September 2006, and that day we booked our first gig for the first Tuesday in October. At that point, the only remaining problem was that we hardly had any music ready, so I had to get writing. And, of course, the Lark Tavern has been our home ever since.

Q: You’ve spotlighted all new and original compositions by Yuko Kishimoto, John Dworkin, Brian Patneaude and yourself on this debut recording, and there’s something nostalgic and familiar about the tunes, but at the same time they sound new and refreshingly vibrant. Was that your intent?

PRAY: Over the last couple of years, I started to think about recording the band, and I knew I wanted to do original material and include some of our arrangements of other songs. When it came time to start dealing with the recording process, I realized that some of the material wasn’t as strong as I would have liked.

A combination of events happened that put the whole thing together. First, I realized in the spring of 2009 that if you record covers, it costs a lot of money to obtain the rights to release those songs. So I immediately began scrambling, trying to write some new material for the band that fit the sound that I had in my head. Also pianist-composer Yuko Kishimoto gave us a couple of new charts, specifically ‘Elements,’ and I knew on the first run with the band that it had to be our first cut on the CD.

There were several other possibilities, including tunes by other members of BSE. When it came time to select the takes, it came right down to which ones translated the best on the recording and if the performance of those tunes were acceptable.

Recording live is always a struggle with a 17-piece group for numerous reasons. We recorded on Tuesday nights for four weeks in a row, took a week off and returned again on another Tuesday. The takes were selected from all those performances.

We had technical issues throughout the process, but my intent was to release an honest representation and documentation of the band at that point in time. I think that, in that regard, we were very successful. If you have never been to the Lark Tavern to see the band, I think the CD will give you an idea of what we are about.

Q: When people come out to see and hear BSE at the Lark Tavern, what would you like them to feel or experience and then think after they go home?

PRAY: I just hope that people come down and have a blast. The scene has changed over the years, and, as you know, jazz has never been the most popular of music genres. But I think we offer something that they can’t get anywhere else around here, and that may be why so many people continue to come to our shows.

I think we have a really good band with great musicians, and it keeps getting better and better. Our material keeps changing over time, so people are not sure what to expect when we’re playing a new chart. It could be a jazz standard, a Mr. Bungle tune, some crazy new experiment of mine or something swingin’ for swing’s sake. I like our diversity, and that’s what we offer.

The Tuesday night hang has become just that: a place for everyone to feel like they are a part of something new, different and exciting. We have attracted way more people than just the jazz-fan base. There are people in the audience who are into punk, hip-hop, country, you name it, and they’ve become return listeners and fans of BSE. That makes me happy.

Q: What do you see as the future of BSE, and how far are you willing to take it?

PRAY: I always hope for longevity in everything I do. I don’t like to start something and then just drop it to do something new.

That being said, I like things to constantly evolve and grow. I have always had the same goal since I started playing music: I just want to get better and continuously work towards a higher standard for myself. It’s not always easy to make that happen, but that is what I want out of everything I do.

BSE sounds great, but there are always improvements to be made, and I hope we all can keep this going for a long time to come. I hope to get the band playing more concert-type venues and get them out beyond our area. I don’t know how far I can take it, but I will continue to push forward. I don’t know anything else.

Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble plays two shows on Sunday – 4 & 5:45pm – at Tess’ Lark Tavern in Albany in celebration of the release of their debut album. Admission is $5.

Story and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Previously: Real Good for Free: Big Soul Ensemble @ Tess’ Lark Tavern

(left) Keith Pray and (right) Yuko Kishimoto
(left) Keith Pray and (right) Yuko Kishimoto

The Keith Pray Ensemble
The Keith Pray Ensemble

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