Nourishment for the Musically Inquisitive – “What is Now” by Ray Sandoval

A deftly layered and tactile experience, the new CD by guitarist Ray Sandoval called “What is Now” embeds poetry and dreams into the listener. The track “Migration Suite” plays with the sounds of the ocean and animal utterances (but very skillfully and attractively), offering sounds both natural and unnatural à la bass clarinet which affixes one gauzy striation over another. The clarity of Sandoval’s guitar strings weaves a melodic story in “Southern Wind”. And if these two are mood pieces, then “Rumba Blues” is pure cheer: riffing, rolling contributions from piano pulled into another direction by a fist-delivered punch from guitar, and sax, taking its place as the czar of melody. “What is Now” is a tight-knit family showing the world the best it has.

Were you always drawn to guitar and why do you feel you can express yourself through it?

At a young age, I was playing drums with a family band playing popular music.  My older brother would play guitar, my father sang, and we had a friend of the family playing bass.  We didn’t sound too good but it was fun and entertaining for family and friends.  Around the age of 13 or 14, I remember wanting to play guitar so my brother taught me the basics.  At first, I didn’t have a good ear so it was hard to express myself on the instrument.  I practiced diligently and advanced quickly.  I eventually became comfortable on the instrument and within a few years, I learned to play classical and rock guitar styles.  The guitar is a very expressive instrument, you can make it cry, sing, and uplift the spirit. The guitar has been with me throughout the majority of my life, so I have a deep connection with the instrument.  Music for me is my expression and the guitar is the instrument I have chosen to guide me. 

What do you think makes a great melody?   

Something that is singable and honest from the heart.

Why did you put out “What is Now” and what does this question mean?

I put that phrase not as a question but perhaps as a statement.  I didn’t want a one-word title as that may have been too intellectual and specific.  A phrase that opens the mind for dialogue.  I hope that we can strive to be more honest with each other and confront our issues head-on.  We live in a world of spin and these kinds of lies and manipulations are dividing us. 

What was it like to have this unique experience of working together and recording remotely because of the quarantine?  

It was fun, different, but exciting to play with old friends again.  I hadn’t played with them for fifteen years, so it was kind of like a remote jam with superb musicians.  I think the hard part of working remotely is that it can be easily overproduced and lose its spontaneity.  All the takes were the first or second as the energy level was raw and not overly thought out. 

How did the challenges of this situation and needing to work even harder affect this CD and do you feel you were successful in the result?

For me, I knew I had to stay focused to achieve what I wanted.  The quarantine reminded me of the gift of music.  I played a lot of solo guitar and piano with my son.   By calling old friends and reaching out, it made me re-connect with people that were significant in my life.  For us, sharing music was our way to support each other during the lockdown.  

I do feel successful in the result, as it represents a unique period in my life and others.  I only release music if I have something to say.    

How do your musicians all stay on top of the moment and feed off one another while playing?

Since half the record was done live in a studio in Berlin last year, it was easier to be together in the moment but for the last two tracks, I had the help of a great rhythm section to inspire the rest of the group to record their tracks. Tony Austin who plays drums with Kamasi Washington and Rene Camacho who plays bass with Kevin Eubanks, was really inspirational for me to achieve the best performances for the recording. Having a solid rhythm section, the improvisation just flows.

Your music has a social meaningfulness (“Migration Suite”). Why do you feel jazz can communicate so well?

I think jazz has a profound way to communicate something really deep within the human soul.  It is something that words can’t express.  I know it sounds cliché but some feelings resonate within us that is hard to describe with words.  For example in Migration Suite, when I hear the starkness of the bass clarinet, the churn of the rhythm section, and the warmth from the keyboards, it is an opportunity for a potent combination of expression.

I am not sure everyone will have the same experience as the performer.  I hope that something is being shared and experienced.  Even if the music irritates them, then it is conveying an emotion.  I had a neighbor in Berlin who       would get stressed out listing to Migration Suite.  It created too much tension inside her.  I am fine with that as long as something is making you feel alive.

Why have you transitioned from rock (Quetzal) to jazz?  

When I was a teenager I always wanted to play jazz, after studying and playing it for a long time I felt I could convey it to a level that was satisfying for me.  I don’t look at music in styles, I just play what sounds and feels good.  Also, at the time, jazz wasn’t paying the bills so rock was the ticket living in Los Angeles.

What was your collab like with artist/activist Ai Weiwei?

It was intimidating as he was a hero for me before I worked with him.  After realizing how simple and human he is, it became very easy.  He was very influential for me in taking chances on Migration Suite.  We discussed conceptual ideas and how to approach things in general.  Although he comes across as very serious, he is quite funny.

What direction is jazz taking today?   

There was a while there were a jazz renaissance was happening but these days it seems everything is game, from traditional jazz, to far out, to experimental. etc.. Living in Berlin, I started exploring free jazz and avant-garde styles. I don’t believe I am the person to say where jazz is going, but jazz has the ability to easily adapt and evolve around the world.

When will you perform next and what are your plans for the rest of this year?   

At this time I don’t have plans to perform as it seems things are at a halt.  I have been working for a year very intensely on this album, from composition, performing, and production that I may take some time to rejuvenate.  I hope to perform these compositions soon when the opportunity presents itself.  It seems like there are always some projects in the vault.  I would like to write out and record some Monk pieces I have arranged for solo guitar.  I also play with a free jazz trio here in Valencia and it would be nice to get that going again.  

Other comments?   

I worked hard on this album, I just hope people have the opportunity to listen and come on the journey of What is Now.  It represents a new direction and hope for a better future.  

For more information visit https://raysandoval.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© Debbie Burke 2020    

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