There’s always that one dude who claims s/he can play any genre of music. We’ve all met that character who talks in very vague musical terms and name drops Miles, Trane, and then raves about King Crimson to spice things up. If this person’s really hip, then they just might quote something that they’ve read out of “Revive.”
But having the facility to truly adapt to any musical situation isn’t a trait that just comes from holding red cups at a party and looking cool. It requires work, a lifetime of constant study, and a bit of talent. Pianist, producer, musical director, and all-around-cool guy Raymond Angry is the perfect example of a musician who truly can play any genre. The classically trained prodigy spent his formative years in Miami’s New World School of Arts before heading off to Howard University where he pursued degrees in both jazz and classical piano.
With a CV that boasts names like Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, and Mick Jagger, it’s hard to refute Angry’s penchant for being able to swim through different musical currents. Angry recently added to his already long list of accomplishments with the release of The Roots’ single, “Tomorrow,” from their latest LP, …and then you shoot your cousin. As if contributing two songs to the legendary, foundation, Illafifth Dynamite, Roots Dynasty Crew wasn’t enough, Angry will also be a part of a compilation album that Revive and Blue Note will release later in the year– yes, that’s right, we’re putting out an album.
Revive: You mentioned auditioning with Alicia Keyes. Was this right after you graduated from Howard?
Ray Angry: This was my first year after I graduated from Howard when I first came to New York.
R: How was your time at Howard?
RA: It was great. It was probably the most important time for me because I wanted to play so many different styles of music. When I entered Howard, I was a classical major. People from my high school only know me as a classical player. I started experimenting with jazz when I got to Howard. I had really cool teachers. Geri Allen was my piano teacher and I had Charles Covington. It was interesting because it was like a whole new world to me. I started playing jazz and I started playing more modern stuff like R&B. I started learning about synthesizers and starting experimenting with computers.
R: You’ve worked with a whole range of different artists from Christina Aguilera to The Roots. How does your approach differ when you’re playing with different artists across genres?
RA: I have to really be focused on what does the gig require. A lot of times I don’t really get to use all my skills. But it’s cool when you work with musicians of a high caliber. Maybe you might not use all your skills, but you might use one thing that changes the whole outlook of how you express yourself when you’re playing jazz because you have a different take on it. I think it all works together.
R: It’s safe to assume that a lot of our readers are people who attend music school with aspirations to be a professional musician. What would be your advice for students who came from a music school background, like yourself, who want to break into the session scene?
RA: I think the most important thing is to keep up with technology. You can play all Wayne Shorter licks, but can you program a sound? Can you take a piano sound and make a different sound with it? Then when you play it, you’re taking it to a whole other level. So you have to understand how to sonically transcribe music.
R: I caught you playing with Saunder Sermons a few years back and I noticed you were using MainStage. Are there any other software programs that you like using?
RA: I love MainStage! I mean, I like Ableton, ProTools, Reason, and Logic. Each one makes you think differently. If I’m doing a gig, then I want to make sure that I have no glitches so I either use MainStage or Ableton
R: Was there a specific moment when you were at Howard that made you delve deeper into jazz?
RA: It was when I met Wynton Marsalis. I was 18 years old and it was crazy. It was around the time when I met Wynton and Marcus Roberts. Marcus was the reason why I was like, “Oh man! Playing jazz is fucking cool!” Listen, the two people that really hit my soul when I was 18 was Marcus Roberts and Kenny Kirkland. Kenny Kirkland’s touch on the piano; you could hear the hammers hit the strings. That always just hits my soul.
Before then, I was into Rachmaninoff, Bach, and all these classical composers that were heavy-handed, melodic, and very into chords. So I met Wynton at this place in D.C. called Blues Alley. I was 18 and I didn’t have any wheels, I mean I was in college! But I would always venture out and be like, “Okay, where can I hear some music?” I would walk to Blues Alley every night. If Wynton was there for a week, then I would walk there every night. It would be him, Marcus Roberts, Reginald Veal, and Herlin Riley. They let me sit in a couple of times. They used to call me Twinkles.
R: So you were 18 sitting in with Wynton.
RA: The thing about Wynton is that he’s always nurturing young musicians.
R: Would you say that you were up to par at that time?
RA: Hell, no! You know what I had? I had the desire. During that period, Wynton was doing a lot of music based on blues. It was great and each year I just had the desire to learn. I was always learning and seeking.
One of my mentors was Mulgrew Miller. He’s the guy that – when I was scared to move to New York – told me that I could either be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond. I’m so glad that I decided to move to New York because it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It was almost like, “Man, why didn’t I move sooner?” Before, I was just classical and jazz piano and that’s all I wanted to do. When I moved to New York, then I got introduced to other music.
I mean, when I was at Howard, I was still doing a lot of gospel and I was playing with Yolanda Adams and Richard Smallwood. One time, I did a gospel session with Richard Smallwood, Walter Hawkins, Edwin Hawkins, Tramaine Hawkins, and Donald Lawrence. It was all of them and [myself] in the studio and they were doing a song for an AIDS benefit. It was just like, “Wow! Can you pinch me?”
R: So, can we trace back Ray Angry’s musical DNA to gospel?
RA: For me, that was the beginning. I started playing in church. I started taking piano lessons with my piano teacher, Mrs. Barry. I would walk to piano lessons – everything has to do with me walking. Then I got accepted into this art program as a piano player. So, I was playing classical piano at the time and I was learning gospel as I was growing up. But my main focus was classical music.
Playing gospel was like a hobby to me. So, when I got to college, I got into more jazz and learning more about synths, programming sounds, and writing music in workstations. When I got to New York, I started touring, I started working with Mick Jagger, and I really got more into production and recorded music.
R: So what was it like for you when you moved to New York in 2001?
RA: It was a whirlwind of music. I started working with Meshell Ndegeocello and it was one of the most important times for me as a keyboard player. I remember Meshell had this synthesizer, the Oberheim OB-8. She gave me the manual and she said, “Learn this. Program this keyboard and learn how to do this.” There [are] a few people who were instrumental to me, and she was definitely one of them.
Then I was working with Kelis, on tour with Britney Spears, when she had the “Milkshake” song. I was the MD for that and I ended up being the MD for Joss Stone. During the time, I was also working with Lauryn Hill, as well. It’s really crazy because I’ve been working with Lauryn Hill for a long time. I’d leave to [go] tour, then go back to Lauryn’s house. This happened for like two years. Recently, she’s been working on her album and I started working with her again, so I’ve been in the studio with her a lot. So my main thing now is a lot of studio work.
R: So this moves us nicely into some Revive/Okayplayer related topics. Let’s talk about your involvement with …and then you shoot your cousin.
RA: First of all, the crazy thing about my Roots involvement is that it was my very first gig as a recording artist on a major label.
R: This was with Joss Stone?
RA: Yes. Somehow they had heard about me and I got a call to go do a session with Questlove and it was for a commercial. I went to Philly, and we did the commercial, and I went back to New York. I didn’t think anything happened. Then they called and said, “They need an organist on this Joss Stone record.” So I did the record, and it was the craziest thing. It was because of The Roots, Rich Nichols, and Questlove that they gave me that first gig. Then shoot back 10 years later, I’m playing with them on Late Night, I’m touring with the band, and I’m doing How I Got Over, which was crazy. I did the next record, Undun.
Now, this new record …and then you shoot your cousin. Bro… let me tell you something. This is like the craziest shit for me. Bro… when you hear this record. Let me tell you something. This record is the shit. Sonically, from beginning to end, it is a work of art.
It’s almost like a painting, and that’s the best way I can describe it. It’s like each line has a purpose and each color has a purpose. I think a lot of times people want to make a hit record so they’re writing songs to find out what’s the next single. Whereas, these guys are like, “Let’s make some fucking music. Let’s make some art. Let’s make something that will withstand the test of time.”
It’s so crazy because the two songs that I did weren’t even supposed to be on The Roots album because it was supposed to be on Tariq’s album.
R: The long-awaited Black Thought album.
RA: Yeah, so I was doing these songs because Rich Nichols was like, “Hey, Tariq’s working on this album.” So I went into the studio and brought my computer and samples that I chopped up. I’m thinking I’m going to program some drum sounds and I’ll play piano on top of them. Then Tariq called in Raheem DeVaughn to come in and write. So it was a writing session and we were working on Tariq’s record.
Then, Tariq was like, “You know, Rich pulled the records for The Roots album.” So I was like, “Okay, cool!” So the one song, “Unraveling” is on the record. Then I get a call and Rich was like, “Yeah, everyone likes that other song and that’s going to be on the record, too.” And that was “Tomorrow” with Raheem.
For the “Tomorrow” record, I programmed the drums, and we did that in one take. I did one piano take, then Raheem sang on it, and that was it. Of course I went back, did some production in the end. For me, it’s definitely a great experience having come from wanting to be a producer, be in the studio, and work with recording artists, and really utilize all my skills.
R: Let’s talk about another record you’re involved in, which is the upcoming Revive/Blue Note compilation album.
RA: Aw man, that’s another one. I feel like this is going to be a crazy year. Basically, I wrote a piece for it and it’s called “The Celebration of Life Suite.” It’s in three movements. It’s basically about the evolution of life. The first one is called, “Awareness.” To me, there are three stages to life. There’s awareness when you’re like, “Wow, here I am as a human being.”
Then the second movement is called “Revolution.” That’s like my Love Supreme, Coltrane, ode to God where you’re fighting with adversity, identity, racism, and whatever it is you’re fighting with. Chris Potter, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and James Genus is playing [and] we’re like going for blood.
The last movement is called, “Awakening.” After the struggle, then there’s the sunshine and it’s all good. You realize it is what it is and I’m going to enjoy my life. It’s a Brazilian festive piece. I’m excited and I hope everyone really likes it.
I have Nadia Washington singing – she’s the lead vocalist. On the last movement, I have a bunch of my friends singing it [like] Gordon Chambers and Kendra Foster. Nadia and Kendra Foster actually helped me write it. I also have Daru Jones playing on the record. So I’m excited, man. I have those two big things coming out this year.
Listen to the two tracks Ray Angry contributed to The Roots’ newest LP ‘… and then you shoot your cousin’ and order your copy here.