Album Review: Keith Pray’s “Home”
While the pandemic moved many musicians off the stage and into the studio, Keith Pray plays it both ways.
And at speed.
In a busy if disjunct year’s time, the resourceful, energetic saxophonist-organist-bandleader-teacher-martial artist released three albums – “Universal Blues,” “Down the Middle,” and now “Home.”
They’re as different as his hyphenated career might suggest. Before we look and listen to “Home,” let’s look back at its predecessors on the record shelf.
When “Universal Blues” hit (in February 2021), Pray told me (for a review on this site) that he’d experimented with electronic sounds to embellish what began organically as a blues record. “Down the Middle” (released in February 2022) features Pray playing organ, no sax at all, in “pretty much all funky grooves,” as he said, in a trio called Three Bass Hit with guitarist Michael Wooten and drummer Chad Ploss.
“Home” happened around the same time, with some of the same players, and was released in mid-December.
Sadly, it marks the last session the late Scott Bassinson would ever play; an album that uses serene tempos and an elegiac tone perhaps to mourn the departed keyboardist but also certainly to celebrate the peace of home.
Pray explained how it happened in a recent email conversation when we back-tracked a bit.
“When I did ‘Universal Blues’ several people thought I must have been angry,” he said; since the music punches pretty hard. “I was actually in a great place and was just exploring, trying to find other ways to express my music,” he added. “I think the only thing we can do is to make the music we hear inside – and that is what makes it come out different than someone else. In my case I have a short attention span and that’s where you get ‘Universal Blues,’ ‘Down the Middle’ and ‘Home’ – all in a little over a year’s time. Can’t get much more different from each other than those!”
Pray spoke of “Home” as a two-part creative burst. Citing the new songs recorded in April 2020, he said, “‘Home (318),’ ‘Order Disorder’ and ‘A Mending with Time’ were recorded track by track during the lock down, really at the same time that ‘Universal Blues’ was being tracked.” He said, “I had many songs in the works during that period that fit several different projects,” adding “And I still do.” To layer up the tracks, “I sent a sketch out with the basic skeleton” (of each song). Next, as he explained, “Then I added the drummer, then bass, then keys, then myself and guitar.” Drawing a contrast, he said, “The (“Home”) music itself is more straightforward. whereas ‘Universal Blues’ was definitely a concept album.”
He went deeper when describing these two approaches and what linked them. “Both albums were basically acoustic type albums at a foundational level,” Pray said. “But ‘Universal Blues’ was always intended to be a mix of acoustic and electronic, modern/traditional, sometimes at odds with itself and yet at the same time integrated.” Complicated in its intent, it’s unified in effect. Pray said, “‘Home’ as an album is more a collection of tunes and a documentation of the time they were recorded.”
He said, “The other three tracks were recorded live in one session” – in winter 2019, when the players worked old school. “We set up in a room together and I set up microphones, we pressed ‘record’ and performed about six tunes.” However, he decided not to release the cover songs from that session, though they contributed to the vibe. “It was just meant to be a fun jam session…I didn’t expect to release anything at the time.” However, Pray recalled, “Around that time Scott Bassinson the keyboard player in the Soul Jazz Revival became ill and this ended up being the last time that we played together as a group.” Pray said, “I thought those three tunes fit well with the others so it finally made sense to release them all together.”
The result is an impressively seamless flow, relaxed but muscular. Maybe this is because of how the two sessions overlap around Bassinson’s passing; maybe because the concept of home itself comes through in the songs.
Pray said, “‘A Mending With Time’ had been written several years ago…(and) Scott Bassinson loved the tune.” Pray went on to explain, “While he was fighting his illness I asked him if he wanted to try and record it remotely.” Pray said, “I didn’t realize how ill he really was at that point. He sent me his track and I quickly sent it to (bassist) Bobby Kendall and then (drummer) Bobby Previte…It was all recorded in about a week. Unfortunately Scott passed the day I finished it.”
For Pray, making music is a home of many mansions.
“I have always been at home playing high energy music but love all styles and keep trying to get to the point of feeling comfortable on ballads and tunes with a lot of space,” he said. “I hope someday I can play one note and make a song come to life, but that, if it ever happens, will be a longtime into the future!” Looking back at “Home,” he said, “The live tunes were a culmination of about 10 years playing together and the comfort that goes with it.”
The record also hails a happy family milestone. “‘Home (318)’ was the first tune I wrote after family and I moved into our house” in the Rotterdam hills on Halloween 2015. He said, “It’s surrounded by wilderness and really felt like home when we moved in. I never up to that point had slowed down long enough to think what it would be like to enjoy just being at home!”
Again looking back, Pray summed up. He said, “‘Universal Blues’ was written to be an acoustic group with the addition of electronics. The written music is very wide open for interpretation and due to the way we recorded it, needed to be organized by me throughout the process to make it work.” Pray added, “After the initial tracks were laid down, I almost released it as an acoustic recording as I like the vibe like that as well. But then I stayed true to my initial thoughts of adding electronics.” He said, “‘Home was simply about the natural vibe of the tunes.” He noted they differed from traditional jazz tunes, but “In my mind the approach was still like that. Basically play the melody have some solos and play the melody again.”
Keith Pray, alto saxophone; Scott Bassinson, keyboards (tracks 2, 4, 5, 6); David Gleason, keyboards (tracks 1 and 3); Jim Wilson, guitar (except track 4); Bobby Kendall, bass (tracks 1, 3 and 4); Mike Lawrence, bass (tracks 2, 5 and 6); Bob Halek, drums (tracks 2, 5 and 6); Chad Ploss, drums (tracks 1 and 3); Bobby Previte, drums (track 6); and Matt Hatfield, lap steel guitar (track 1).
The six songs on “Home” follow that jazz map: melody, solos, melody again.
“Home (318)” warms like a hard-wood fire, quiet but strong. And it nicely frames Wilson’s guitar over a jaunty riff.
“Second Chance” is a groove, cheerful but far from simplistic, showcasing Bassinson as ace accompanist behind everybody and soloing it back home.
“Order Disorder” goes retro/fusion-y, and it’s pure fun, Ploss punching his snare happy and hot while Pray hits staccato licks and Wilson drops tasty chords, then solos earthy and sweet.
“A Mending With Time” has a serene healing feel, a loving welcome.
“Layin’ On the One” goes for the funk, all sizzle, snap and sass. When Pray pops in to solo, it’s about the mellowest take-over ever. They take their time, confident and cool.
Maybe even sweeter is “When She Smiles,” a loving ballad of great tender affection.
While this music originated in two very different sessions, by two recording methods and with different players, Pray pulls it together with a unifying vision and a generous way of letting everybody shine.
Even as winter winds down lots of live music activity, Pray is happy to step back onstage.
In July he led his 17-piece Big Soul Ensemble at the Cock ’N’ Bull, its first gig since Covid shut down its longtime home stage at the Van Dyck. Pray exulted, “We had a blast!” He said, “The Cock n’ Bull is such a great venue. It was a lot of fun to have the band back together again.” He reflected, “Over the course of the pandemic, I was up and down about whether it had run its course. I’m not sure if it will ever get back to playing monthly, but I do want to keep it going. Time will tell.”
Meantime, he plays New Year’s Eve Saturday at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs.
“It will be my quartet playing some of the music from ‘Home,’” he said, “as well as from past albums.” The band is pianist John Esposito, bassist Nick Edwards and drummer Alyssa Falk Verheyn. “That is a kicking rhythm section!”
Next week, Jan. 6 and 7, Pray plays with trumpeter Ray Vega, drummer Joe Barna, keyboardist Ian McDonald and bassist Jason Emmonds at Alias Coffee in Troy. Then, on Jan. 8, Pray resumes a longstanding gig with drummer Bobby Previte’s band Art for Now in Catskill at the Avalon Lounge with trombonist Joe Fiefler, pianist John Esposito, bassist Nick Edwards and Pray playing alto saxophone. Pray explained, “We will be playing some selections by Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter and others, as well as original music from the band members.” In other words, they may take it “Home.”