Let's Get Found

From 9-to-5 to 1-2-3-4: Executive-turned-jazz-bassist Ray Drummond

The last thing Ray Drummond ever wanted was to get lost, but he's had plentiful opportunities to stray along his atypical road to jazz success. As part of the group of jazz players who launched their careers during the music's sprawling, midlife crisis of the 1970s--scuffling for recognition in the preceding generation's long shadows and fusion's confusing muddle--the 52-year-old post-bop bassist-composer has spent 25 years bulling his way out of back-line obscurity in search of the limelight. Along the way the huge, hugely talented musician has cultivated a work ethic that has resulted in appearances on more than 200 records, the usual paragraph or two afforded bass players in the jazz guides, an impossibly tangled calendar of engagements, and a growing fluency in virtually all prevailing jazz idioms.

Yet despite his decidedly blue-collar approach to music, there may be no musician in today's increasingly white-collar jazz community with more established white-collar credentials. In the current climate of conservatory-trained hotshots, Drummond is an anomaly, a largely self-taught player who successfully turned a hobby into a profession after leaving a safe career in corporate America a quarter century ago.

The son of a career military man, Drummond had the predictably peripatetic upbringing of an Army brat. Growing up all over the United States and Europe, he attended 14 schools in 12 years, before his family eventually settled in California. As a schoolboy, he played trumpet and French horn before taking up the bass at age 15 and the piano during his years at Claremont Men's College. Still, a full-time career in music seemed unworkable, and after graduating in 1968, he took a job with Allstate in Menlo Park, a situation that, for the time being, provided him with the best of both worlds: a foot on the corporate ladder and ready access to the still-vibrant San Francisco jazz scene. He played casual gigs around the Bay Area whenever he got the chance, but the corporate world was increasingly eating into his leisure time, and by 1970 he was enrolled in the MBA program at Stanford.

Drummond made one early attempt to break from the corporate fast track, walking away from Stanford to try his hand at jazz, and by 1973 he was already recording with hard-bop vibes legend Bobby Hutcherson. A year later, however, he was coaxed back into the office to work for a company his father had started upon his retirement from the Army. Drummond eventually became an executive vice president of his dad's firm, Harris Management, but he was hounded by a nagging sense that he wasn't cut out to ride his desk job into old age.

"I just had the realization that what I was doing wasn't really hitting me where I live," Drummond says over the phone from his home in California. "You know, I still found myself asking, 'What do you really want to do?' I knew I wouldn't be really happy hanging around an office the rest of my life, and my wife and I just decided that it was time to take the plunge, to find out if I could do this."

He soon found out he could. Since moving to New York in 1977, Drummond has put together an impressive résumé that includes hundreds of recording sessions and high-profile engagements and a body of work that's impressive both for its quantity and astonishing range. Over the last 20 years, Drummond has played with everyone from experimentalists Pharaoh Sanders and David Murray to more settled vets Art Farmer and the late Betty Carter. And along the way he has honed his front-line chops and compositional skills to lead his own band on the stage and in the studio, a rare opportunity for a bass player.

In the '90s Drummond has enjoyed a stable and productive relationship with the New York-based indie Arabesque Recordings, which has led to the creation of four excellent records with a varying cast of all-stars that has included Kenny Barron, Joe Lovano, and David "Fathead" Newman. His newest Arabesque recording, 1-2-3-4, features a scaled-down quartet version of his touring sextet, Excursions Band--tenor saxophonist Craig Handy, pianist Stephen Scott, and drummer Billy Hart. The album finds the bassist-producer leading his charges through a territory between jazzocratic conservatism and stylistic innovation Drummond refers to as "the broad middle ground."

Touring that middle ground, 1-2-3-4 sets Drummond's rich, melodic playing (see his marvelous solo run through "Prelude to a Kiss") against open, oblique hard-bop compositions that suggest the Miles Davis Quintet of 1965-'68. That influence is apparent in Drummond's own spacious and crepuscular "Ballade Poetique" as well as the relaxed, open jaunt "Driftin'." He further tips his hand to the quintet with versions of numbers by two Davis-band alumni--"Nefertiti" and "Ana Maria" by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and "Little Waltz" by bassist Ron Carter.

Drummond clearly relishes the opportunities leadership affords him to move his bass to the front line and showcase his considerable skills as a player. Yet he's also a generous frontman who always seems willing to step into the background, yielding the spotlight to his band mates: Witness Craig Handy's fervent tenor saxophone workout on the spiritual "Goin' Home" or pianist Stephen Scott's hurtling, full-throttle assault on the Drummond original "Oh Jay." Still, despite the top-flight company, Drummond manages to seize a majority of his album's highlights, from his turn as an improbably graceful dance-floor drunk on the impressionistic "Driftin'," to his stuttering, nervous-yet-cool dialogue with guest drummer Billy Higgins on John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." And when he's not owning the melody, he's driving the band from the backseat--or the back line, as it were--with his big-toned propulsive playing goading every solo.

In conversation Ray Drummond admits that he's not quite where he wants to be yet--though he certainly isn't lost--and 1-2-3-4 offers fresh evidence that this white-collar-dropout-turned-blue-collar-bandleader is well on his way to earning at least another paragraph in the annals of jazz.


Ray Drummond plays at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at the Dakota Bar & Grill; (651) 642-1442.

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