(Previous articles are available at the Featured Musican Archives page)
Name: Michael Raynor
Early Years/Education: I played guitar in the third grade, then we moved. The only teacher we found played the banjo and was teaching me stuff like “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” so I quit. A couple of years later I found myself drumming with pencils on everything. Then at school in music class they said choose an instrument, and there was this kid who was playing with sticks on a bongo. I asked him, “How do you do that?” and he said, “I take drumming lessons,” and handed me a business card. That started me on private lessons and I took to it quickly. Then it was playing that led to the music. I was into Kiss at that point (around the seventh grade), but as I got more into it, I started seeking the music that had better drumming. Steve Gadd was a huge influence.
I’m from Chicago, and I went to Northern Illinois University for a couple of years, taking music classes as well as the other stuff. I was just not invested, I wanted to play all the time. I wasn’t getting what I wanted from the program. I was playing in one of the jazz bands, in a combo, but no one wanted to play all the time like I did. I got into a reggae ska band, a campus band made up of older guys. That was my education, those guys were on me all the time. That raised my level quite a bit. I was always interested in jazz and jazz fusion. My education came more [from] playing with people.
Von Freeman: I heard him on the radio at about 3:00 am, listening to Larry Smith’s late night jazz show, and all of a sudden this tune starts and the drums sound really live. It was Jack DeJohnette, and the sax was screaming. I just stopped what I was doing and the jock said, “That’s Chicago’s very own Von Freeman.” The next day I started asking people about him, and everybody knew who he was. He was one of the great Chicago tenors, and he had a jam session on the South Side.
I decided I wanted to meet this guy. I just went one time, and I go in and the first person I see is this young trumpet player named Brad Goode, and he introduced me. Von said, “Hey baby, you might as well go on up.” I literally had walked in the door as they were changing tunes and went up to play. I played a long time, like eight or nine tunes behind a bunch of singers. Von kept peeking at me and saying, “Beautiful baby.”
As it happened, he was doing a record and the people who were recording him were in the club that night. ”Who is this kid on drums?” they asked. “Why don’t we have him do the other session.” They needed a few more tunes for the recording. I didn’t play with Von that night, but three days later, I was in the studio with him. We recorded “Walkin Tuff” on Southport Records. I was with Von Freeman for 22 years, up until his death in 2012.
I also worked with Kurt Elling. He would come down to the New Apartment Lounge in Chicago with a notebook, very disciplined, approaching the music like a student. He grew up singing, his dad was a choral conductor. Laurence Hobgood was his collaborator. Laurence had a vision of what Kurt could do. In Chicago, I still have a quartet with pianist Dennis Luxion, alto saxist Greg Ward and bassist Jeff Pedraz.
Portland: I moved here three years ago. I had first come out in 2004 for a backpack trip. I had seen a photo exhibit of the gorge at the Old Town Art Fair in Chicago. I walked up to the photographer and asked, “Where is that?” “That’s Oneonta Gorge,” he said. It was a huge photo in color. I said, “I’ve got to go there.” I loved the people I was playing with in Chicago, but I just wanted to live somewhere more beautiful. When Von slowed down, I started thinking more seriously about it. We were no longer doing our weekly gig, and I started thinking I could fly back for gigs. The first jazz musician I met in Portland was Dan Balmer, through a friend. We heard him play; I asked if I could sit in, and he let me.
The timing was beautiful. After we played, a guy came up to me and recognized my playing. He was a huge Kurt Elling fan and teaches at Lincoln High School. He then asked if I could come over and do a master class. So through the class I got to meet people right away. Here in Portland I have a trio with David Goldblatt on piano and Chris Higgins or Phil Baker on bass. We play at Bar Mingo in NW Portland. I am also in Dan Balmer’s Trio with George Mitchell and have a trio with Chance Hayden and Damian Erskine.
Musical Influences: Philly Jo Jones, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Stewart Copeland (The Police), Joey Barron, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Antonio Sanchez, Bill Stewart, etc.
Most Satisfying Experience: Playing with Von Freeman for 22 years. Not only the musical inspiration that came week after week from playing with a master of improvisation, but the life lessons that came from one of the most beautiful persons I’ve ever met. He ran a jam session on the South Side of Chicago for more than 30 years and was incredibly supportive of every musician who came to sit in. From beginners to Roy Hargrove, Eric Alexander, Steve Coleman and Harry Connick’s band (all regulars when in town). They’d all come to the back of the bar after playing to get his blessing.
He had this special handshake that everyone took as a transfer of mojo, “Here, let me put some of this stuff on you,” he’d say. He treated every one who walked in the place like they owned it, and people would just light up around him. I feel very blessed to have had that experience.
Favorite Recordings: Miles Davis - “Kind of Blue,” “Milestones,” “Nefertiti”; Herbie Hancock - “Empyrean Isles,” “Speak Like a Child”; Wayne Shorter - “Speak No Evil”; Stevie Wonder - “Innervisions”; Pat Metheny - “80/81”; Steve Swallow - “Home”; Mulgrew Miller - “The Sequel”; Brad Meldhau - “Largo,” “Places”; Kurt Rosenwinkl - “The Next Step”; Robert Glasper - “In My Element.”
Discography: Dennis Luxion/Michael Raynor Quartet, “DLMR4” (Independent 2012). With Kurt Elling: “Cool Yule” (Blue Note ‘97), “This Time It’s Love” (Blue Note 98), “Live in Chicago” (Blue Note 2000), and “Live in Chicago - Out Takes” (Blue Note Australia 2000). With Von Freeman: “The Improviser” (Premonition 2002), “Best of Von Freeman” (Premonition 2007), “Vonski Speaks” (Nessa 2009), and “Walkin’ Tuff“ (Southport 1989). With Brad Goode & Von Freeman: “Inside Chicago Vol. 1” (Steeple Chase 2001). With George Freeman: ”Rebellion” (Southport 1995). With Rich Corpolongo: “Just Found Joy” (Delmark 1996), “Smiles” (Delmark 1998). With Bobby Lewis: “Mellifluous Tones” (Cool Horn Records 2014). With Dan Wilensky: “Made in Portland” (Polyglot 2015). with Bryan Doherty: “Rigamarole” (Origin 2008). With Dave Baney: “So In Love” (Independent 2000). With Eden Atwood: “No One Ever Tells You” (Concord ‘92).
Gigs: Michael Raynor Trio @ Bar Mingo November 1 & 8 (and every first and second Sunday), 5:30-8:30 pm; Dan Balmer Trio @ Jimmy Mak’s November 9; Trio Subtonic @ Cebu Lounge, Hood River, November 21; Jacqui Naylor Band @ Jimmy Mak’s, December 2.
Future Plans: For me playing music is a long journey. My main goal is to get better. To get better expressing the ideas I have, becoming more articulate on the instrument. Von was a role model for me in terms of making a life long project of playing music. One night he said to me, “Look here Michael, when I get to the gates and St. Peter says, ‘Who are you and what did you do?’ I’m just going to hold up this saxophone and say, ‘I’m Von Freeman and I sure tried to play this horn.’”
Other: Being here in Portland gives me an opportunity to rethink how I play and how I want to play. In Chicago, I was trying for a bop sound that would make Von happy. I feel like now I’m getting back to a more modern way of playing.
What did Von want from his rhythm section? To play really straight ahead. Von wanted to play very freely but wanted the rhythm section to be swinging. Sometimes he would just “take it out” and we’d play free for as much as 15 minutes. Then he’d go into a different tune. He had the respect of the straight ahead guys like Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons, but all of the A.A.C.M. (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) guys loved him too.
-- by Rita Rega