Tony Cummings spoke at length to one of the British Church's more unheralded musicians, RAY BUTCHER
Ray Butcher is a trumpeter and composer who has clocked up years of achievements. He has recorded with everyone from Robert Plant to Martin Smith, played in concert with everyone from King Pleasure And The Biscuit Boys to BB King, and now has just released his second solo album, 'Lions Den'. He came to the Cross Rhythms studio (which wasn't too much of a stretch, as Ray lives in nearby Newcastle-under-Lyme) to talk about his music and faith.
The 'Lions Den' album was a long time in the making. He admitted, "I started recording a version of it in 2013 or 2012 in one studio and then a year later did bits of it in another one!" He went on to explain what was wrong with the first recording. "I think the recording booth space that we used was too reverberant in itself, so I thought the trumpet might come out wrong. So what I did was I did it in a much deader room, with a lot more wood and carpet, where the other one was more like a college studio. It just seemed to me that the room was echoing too much. We got it all in a dead-ish room to then put the reverb on where we needed it later on, which was better I think for what we were doing."
I admitted to Ray that my favourite track on the album was "After Midnight", which brilliantly echoes the mood and feel of the Miles Davis classic, "Round About Midnight". He said, "Miles Davis was a great trumpeter, particularly with a mute. He pioneered this idea of playing with a Harmon mute and removing the stem. That gives a song a particular New York, dark streets kind of feel to it. Whenever I do a selection of my tunes, I work with a pianist called Tim Amann, who's on the album, and he does some of his tunes and I do some of mine. That one always goes down well at the end of the first set. They all feel like going to the bar afterwards, which is probably not a good thing! It sets them up for the interval, relaxes them instead of them having bar fights outside on the pavement. Not that we'd want that, but in jazz anything's possible."
I asked Ray about Tim and some of the other Christians who appear on 'Lions Den'. "Well, Tim, the pianist, is definitely a believer. I have been very good friends with him for many years. His whole family have really got into their faith. The guy that did some of the trumpet overdubs with me, recording engineer Dave Plumb, he was very active in the Worship Central scene. He was very patient with me as I kept going over bits and bobs left, right and centre. He did the strings, he was really good, a really professional guy. I'd recommend him and Canvas Studios to anybody. Julian Wiggins played alto and tenor saxes on one track. He's a very good friend of mine. He goes way back in the Christian music scene."
It is a little surprising that there are a couple of vocals on what is essentially an instrumental jazz album. Explained Ray, "There was a song where I wasn't sure originally whether to have a singer on there. I like the idea of writing piano tunes, to try and explore the piano because that's another one of my instruments. In the end, I thought, 'an opera singer will be great for it', so I googled, and asked around my friends, 'Can anyone hit a certain note?' I think it was a hard G or a top D. A friend said, how about trying Sian O Duill, from the Surbiton area, and I met her at a party for a friend of mine, Paul Reeves. She's a former West End singer, and she interpreted it really well. I had a couple of goes with this. The original recording was with a Theremin, but because she was singing quite high anyway then I didn't really want to add the Theremin effect. It's certainly a diversion from what you normally hear. It's almost like I wanted to release it separately but thought 'no, chuck it in and see what happens'. I wrote the lyrics. I needed to create a no-man's-land feeling, which is exactly what the chords are like, they're major sevenths. So it could be anything you want it to be really."
I asked Ray to name his favourite track. He responded, "I quite like the one with the strings on, 'Lizard Point', because that took me ages to arrange. I think that works because it took a long time to get the harmonies right on that. I've spent a lot of time listening to Wynton Marsalis' string albums, with Robert Freedman the arranger, and there were quite jarring harmonies in that, whereas this one tends to be quite diatonic. There's a few sharpened nines in there, but the rest of it is a quartet really. I had Mark 'Foxy' Robinson, from the CBSO, come down and put on a few string bars. Helen Edgar, the cellist, is also from the CBSO. She's a terrific player, and they did it in virtually one take. Although Foxy did a couple of higher overdubs for me later on."
So, I asked, is there an actual place called Lizard Point? He responded, "Yes, there is. Very much out to sea (in Cornwall, at the tip of the Lizard Peninsula). Concerning song titles, I decided I wouldn't go for anything overtly Christian. My previous album, 'War On The Saints', was overt, but if you have faith, I think this can mean something to you. I gave them very earthy names, very naturalistic. 'Lions Den' is the most overtly religious tune on there."
I asked Ray to deliver a potted biography. He answered, "I was born in Southsea, near Portsmouth. Eastney, to be exact. I lived there with my mum and three brothers and one sister, until my sister moved out when I was about four. I left there at about the age of 16, so I grew up in Portsmouth, went to a boys' school there. I moved down to Winchester to study music. When I was 12 or 13, I saw the film The Glenn Miller Story and went from there. Louis Armstrong just blew me away. He was on that, so I went out and bought a few vinyls. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and was hooked on jazz from there on in."
Ray continued, "I was playing the cornet from the age of eight. My brother was in the Royal Marines and he gave me his old cornet. I was playing in a brass band down in Portsmouth with my brass teacher, and I moved onto the trumpet a bit later on. I was 16, roughly, when I took on trumpet, which is a different kind of air, you need more air to play it. I was thinking of joining the Royal Marines, because my brother was in it, but eventually I gave that idea up because I didn't like the idea of the discipline, which is quite severe. My mum said, 'Oh, you need the discipline but you'll never make it'. So I just drifted to music.
"It was definitely the most interesting subject. I went to Winchester to study music at Peter Symonds College. You had to audition to get in. I got there and found I was in this elite bunch of Hampshire musicians, and I found that I wasn't able to adjust to the trumpet very easily so I took up the piano. I kept the trumpet on the side while I tried to get my lip back into function again. It took me years to get those notes again that I'd had when I was younger. So I drifted from Winchester up to Kingston University, which was easy to get into, you didn't need to be very academic. They gave a very basic offer, so I went up to Kingston and started playing piano in bars."
It was the decision to move in with a friend, Sam Chaplin, which was to have a profound effect on Ray's life. Sam was a very strong Christian. Ray explained, "When I was a child, I'd gone to a Methodist church, my mum made us all go, but I'd just rebelled at the age of eight. It wasn't until I was about 17 that I started going to a Brethren Bible study, and I tried to keep it going alongside the music. I couldn't work out which was more important to me, God or music. Eventually there was a massive conflict. My lip still hadn't come back, so I was like 'well, I'm never going to make it unless God helps me', yet I didn't want to put him first. It wasn't until I had some visions of this, that and the other that I thought oh, forget music. I'm not interested anymore, God sobered me up. Then the music eventually came back some years after that. He did some miraculous work. I felt it was definitely a miracle that I could play, full stop."
Attending churches like New Life Church in Portsmouth and New Malden Baptist, his musical as well as his spiritual endeavours began to bear fruit. "The Lord really helped my playing get stronger. I was doing less playing but the playing I was doing, I felt, was getting better because of the help the Lord was giving me with it. It is a very physical instrument, and I left Kingston with a really low degree, I was really not concentrating through that period. I then practised virtually every day for five to eight hours, and had a part-time job. I was barely paying the rent but I wasn't on the dole. I was practising for so long, and I thought 'right, I'm going to go for a cruise-liner job' because with the music there wasn't much going on in London for me. Eventually, a year later, I got on the cruise liners. As a Christian doing music I was determined not to drink and to preach to all the people I met. So that was quite an interesting experience. For six months, I think I drove people mad.
"A lot of the work on the cruise ships was big band work, lead playing. I enjoyed doing it but it was also quite stressful. I eventually got a cut on my top lip, because you never got a day off. You've got to be either really large, or tall, you've got to have a brilliant technique, but I was just pressing it onto the face really hard and getting through the night, but I was really suffering the next day. Doing that for six months solid was like a life sentence."
Ray landed a plum job touring with the hugely popular King Pleasure And The Biscuit Boys. It was well paid work, but there were problems. He explained, "We weren't working every day, and I shouldn't have practiced on the days off. I think there was definitely a conflict of interest spiritually, but they were very much heathen. They were real drinkers. Lovely bunch, but they were just too hard living for me. I remember once this Bible I had on the top shelf of the bus fell onto someone. He said it was a sign, and I think it probably was! It was hilarious! No, they were all lovely in their own individual way, but I did eventually get booted out because it just wasn't working. And I'm so glad that it didn't."
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