“Left Right Left” is a title that alludes to drummer Tina Raymond’s experience as teacher and faculty member at Los Angeles City College. “As a drummer and percussion teacher, I say the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ often. I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about what combinations of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are the most efficient way to execute rhythms…” The title also has clear political implications. Tina Raymond grew up in the household of a labor lawyer. She is imbued with a solid populist, feminist and, to put a somewhat simplistic label on it, liberal viewpoint. At her recent record release date at the Blue Whale she recounted with wry humor the time she was introduced to an audience as “the lovely Tina Raymond.” She seems to accept that labels happen – “lovely”, “liberal,” and the like. And she is indeed lovely. But more accurately, she is an accomplished drummer with rock solid technique and flawless time.
I have seen her play with various ensembles over the last year or so. I’m struck by the quality of her playing and by her calm and at the same time no nonsense presence. I would say her expression when she plays is placid, and at the same time intelligent and intense. These qualities are reflected in the music on her debut CD.
On the opening cut, she captures the rolling urgency of Odetta’s recording of “Pastures of Plenty” by Woody Guthrie. I am always amazed at the ability of good arrangers to transform a very simply constructed folk song into something with the depth that inspires real improvisation. There is more to it than just using an interesting meter, in this case 7/4. There is an emotional connection to the material that inspires both the players and the listener. The song fades out nicely with Putter playing the bass ostinato and Art Lande plucking the piano strings.
“Battle Hymn of the Republic” follows with a treatment that careens rhythmically and harmonically, veering off course and then almost back on track again. This is not happy tappy jazz music. There is real anger here, frustration and confusion. Just when it seems to go completely off the rails, the piano and drums drop out leaving Putter Smith to solo seemingly aimlessly. When pianist Art Lande and Raymond reenter, the melody is there, but it is not in good shape. The entire piece lurches to a halting finish. Also known as, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” there is enough of the core of this song to identify it as Julia Ward Howe’s familiar militaristic anthem. Mine ears have heard the deconstruction, and it is kind of brilliant.
Art Lande’s arrangement gives “America” a more constructed reading, at the same time allowing each musician to stretch out in improvised flights. “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies,” is the repetitive motif here, and the arrangement gives an impression of majesty and hope, before ending on a chord that lands like a question mark.
“Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ with the union” is the hook of the traditional crowd rousing toe tapper “Union Maid.” Pete Seeger’s energetic recording comes to mind. Yet here it is given a gentle, plaintive waltz treatment. It is introspective, melodic, and unaggressive. At the same time it has an assertive quality. Here “Union Maid” is an explanation given gently, but in no uncertain terms, articulated through the superb musicianship of this band. It is a fresh, unexpected approach.
“The Fiddle and the Drum” is a song Joni Mitchell wrote, in her words, “for America as a Canadian” in 1969, when the Viet Nam War was perhaps in its darkest days. Raymond removes any semblance of form in her approach. This is a difficult cut on the record for me, perhaps because it is so relentlessly dark, and to my ears meandering. But the approach is certainly not tentative, and does reflect the bleakness of the subject matter.
She is wise to follow the cut with James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with it’s uplifting gospel feel. Raymond understands that one can only take so much dark meandering. There has to be a morning after. It has a sunny, optimistic feel, and Raymond delivers superb percussive underpinning to the entire piece.
An original by Putter Smith, “Xmas in Baghdad” is next and once again the tone shifts to the darker side. There is an angular, ominous quality to the composition, suggesting danger lurking around every corner.
“Saigon Bride” by Joan Baez is another anti-war anthem from the Viet Nam era. Raymond slows down the tempo for her version, and gives the head to Putter Smith, who stays melodically true to the original. The trio explores the simple melody with thoughtful dexterity before Smith fades out with the line.
“White Light” is the second Putter Smith original on the record. It opens with another angular, moody section and then kicks into a straight-ahead swinger. There is an extended drum break, which gives Raymond a nice showcase, followed by bass and piano solos. The swing is solid, the groove relaxed and competent, and the solos are superb.
An appropriate ending to the disc is Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer.” It has a medium, securely swinging tempo, right in the pocket, and Raymond has expertly reimagined the familiar melody. Her drum breaks once again display rock solid time and a multitude of colors and hues. It is an optimistic, uplifting finish to the record.
I enjoy listening to this very intriguing and engaging CD as much as I enjoyed hearing the music performed live at the Blue Whale. Colorado based pianist Art Lande is somebody who is new to me. He is a thoroughly enjoyable and first-rate musician, who radiates the same good will and expertise in person that he does on this record. It is clear that he and Tina have a very special musical bond. And what a pleasure it is to hear the superb Putter Smith, who is nothing less than an icon of our Los Angeles jazz scene. That this young woman, at the relative beginning of her musical career, chose to collaborate with two veterans speaks volumes.
This is one of the most interesting records I have heard in a long time. It is refreshing to hear the music of somebody who is unafraid and bold in her vision, and has the technique and depth to articulate some very complex emotions. At times this music is dark and fearful, at times inspired, at times plaintive and melodic. But it is always assertive, honest and technically pure.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the lovely Tina Raymond. And by “lovely” I mean talented, fearless and significant.
Released April 7, 2017
Tina Raymond – Drums
Art Lande – Piano
Putter Smith – Bass
Recording Engineer, Mix, Master:
Paul Tavenner, Big City Recording Studios (Granada Hills, CA)