John Daniel Ray keeps in motion
Most gigging musicians have a many-irons-in-the-fire approach to staying busy. But Winston-Salem-based bassist and composer John Daniel Ray takes the idea of having a lot on your plate to impressive levels. Multi-tasking and going with the flow are temperamental orientations that also play into his creative approach. He stays busy, and when he makes music, he’s literally got his hands and feet doing something, playing the bass, tapping on laptop keys, stomping on foot pedals or doing other sorts of gadgetry-related manipulations. His system is often set up in such a way that he’s not only generating sounds himself, he’s also taking sounds made by his collaborators —say, the bass drum from the drummer— and tweaking with them to assign pitch or to otherwise alter the original signal, making it part of the digital mesh that he helps create.
John Daniel Ray has a number of standing gigs. He plays at a church every Sunday. He performs jazz tunes at High Point University a couple times a week. He plays with a wedding band that tends to perform twice a week. He also makes improvised atmospheric musical accompaniment at a yoga class twice a month. And he plays in a video-game music cover band. He’ll be touring the West Coast this fall with the group Jazz Is Phish, a rotating ensemble that takes the compositions of the jam band Phish and approaches them as jazz tunes, highlighting the improvisational and extended solo possibilities. His Bandcamp page is filled with other projects, some of them one-time deals, some of them long-term collaborations. There’s a vintage-jazz-sounding song he wrote for the wedding of some friends. There’s a pretty classical guitar piece he wrote in honor of a cousin who had passed away. It’s a grab bag that’s bursting with odds and ends, and one gets the feeling that his hard drives are filled with hours and hours and hours of musical source material that he’s waiting to distill down to other recordings, eventually to be served up for streaming fans.
When I spoke to Ray last week, he was at work at a non-musical side project.
“I’m making a hammock,” he told me.
Ray said he’s been into backpacking for a while and he had been using nylon camping hammocks for years, but had long suspected that he could make them better.
The hammock-making is an anomalous pursuit. His life is full-time music now, “and way too full-time,” he said with a laugh. But Ray appreciates the benefits of his diversified musical endeavors.
“Every minute of my day, I’m doing something that I love,” he said. “I literally wake up looking forward to what I do.”
Ray, 38, grew up in Winston-Salem and went to the North Carolina School of the Arts as a high school student, switching his focus from classical guitar to bass, in an orchestral setting. Ray doesn’t necessarily view it this way, but it’s possible that his intense immersion into classical music set off a reaction that sent him in a different, more exploratory musical direction.
“I totally got burnt out on classical,” he said.
Much of Ray’s music now embraces a fully improvised aesthetic. There are often no songs, no predetermined structures. He gets together with like-minded collaborators, someone zeros in on a key, and the grooves start percolating from there.
Listen to “The Man Makes A Phone Call,” a track from a trio project called Microwave Homies. It’s a keyboard, bass and drums configuration. Ray posted the recordings in the summer. Fans of early-’70s era Miles Davis or of the squishy funk-tinged fusion of Return To Forever might enjoy these skittering jams. At times Ray’s bass sounds like a video-game creature, steadily chomping away, munching at the low end, and then he’ll punch up the far-out effects, layering on harmonized notes or digital delays, sending the rhythms rippling out in receding waves.
Sometimes the energy swells to bumping crescendos and then subsides into atmospheric washes.
“I’ve gotten really into improvisation, just studying it as a lifestyle, day-to-day, making decisions. I’ve gotten really passionate about it as a musical form,” Ray said.
For the yoga classes, Ray plays what he calls “chill electronics.” It’s music that has to be soothing and non-disruptive, stretching out for 15-minute expanses at times, and yet sometimes a slow, steady pulse or beat is called for, and Ray gets to explore the ways that music and sound relate to the body.
He landed the yoga gig by randomly contacting some area yoga teachers with the proposal to accompany their classes. Through it, he has been “learning how to make music along with movement.”
Bending and stretching are part of Ray’s musical world, in terms of reaching an audience. Streaming has altered the landscape for musicians. The traditional sources of revenue have been obliterated in many senses. Selling physical copies of music, or getting paid for digital downloads — those aren’t lucrative in the ways they might have been 25 years ago. And yet, if the internet vaporized the possibility of making money by selling music, it also opened up pathways for connecting with a potential audience on a global scale. A musician like Ray doesn’t need to focus absolutely on appealing to local fans if he can tap into a network of interested listeners in other places. Pockets of fans might add up to an audience in unlikely places. If a musician can get to them, non-traditional touring opportunities can emerge.
“The biggest challenge with the improv thing has been marketing,” Ray said. “For the kind of stuff we do, there’s maybe a handful of people who are gonna come out and see a show like that. And a lot of them are my friends who are gonna support me. But worldwide there are several hundred thousand people who are interested in this.”
If keeping busy is the key to success, then Ray is slowly on his way to piecing together a critical mass of listeners, wherever they may be.
“I’m creating what I want to create and then trying to find the people that want to hear that.”
John Daniel Ray will release a new record by his Vintage Astronaut ensemble in early November. The material was recorded during a five-night residency at the South Side Beer Garden in Winston-Salem. Ray will also be providing music for the Live Music & Yoga event that generally happens on the first and third Sunday of every month at 4:30 p.m. at Footnote, 634 W. 4th St., Winston-Salem.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.