Ray LeVier: Against All Odds
Drummer Ray LeVier has chops. His Web page includes video of a drum clinic near his home in New York’s Hudson Valley that places his virtuosity beyond question, as do his heavy beats behind singer-songwriter KJ Denhert. But on his postbop-oriented leader debut, Ray’s Way (Origin), LeVier epitomizes understatement; he takes no solos, save for a series of one-bar breaks on one track, and comps so subtly that even the bass (played by François Moutin or Ned Mann) frequently dominates him. “I wanted it to sound like a band, not a bunch of hired guns,” says LeVier. “I didn’t want it to sound like a drummer’s album, but like an album.”
Hardly standard operating procedure for a drummer-as-bandleader, but LeVier’s entire musical career has defied conventional wisdom. Shortly after discovering his instrument at age 12, he suffered extensive third-degree burns when his sleeping bag caught fire during a campout. The accident deprived him of most of the fingers on his left hand, causing his doctors to believe that he’d never play drums again. LeVier didn’t accept that answer: He asked his mother to bandage a drumstick to his hand and beat the skins even when it aggravated his injuries. “The skin was like tissue paper,” he recalls, “and my hands were bleeding. But I kept at it and just kept trying to figure out a way. So I was walking through a parking lot and I found what I think was a hockey glove—no fingers. And I said, ‘Well, why can’t I just stick my hand in this, and duct tape the stick to my hand?’”
The trick worked, and began a series of innovations in his technique. LeVier had his thumb surgically reset to provide a fulcrum for the stick, but if it slipped from his grasp he couldn’t catch it. “I was just sitting there one day and happened across a rubber band, and I said, ‘Wow, maybe this’ll work.’ So I put it around the butt end of the stick and on my hand: voila! If the stick started to slide out I would just let go and the rubber band would pull it back in.” Even more effective, he later found, was an adhesive commonly used for wigs, which held the stick in place but still allowed him to put it down if he needed brushes for the next tune.
LeVier’s goal in these experiments was to be a rock drummer. When he began studying with Sol LaRocca, a veteran of Teddy Wilson and Junior Mance’s bands, he was stymied by the teacher’s approach. “He scared the crap out of me!” LeVier laughs. “I didn’t have time for these rudiments; I was going to be a rock star!” But when college neared and he began to regard drumming as a serious career, LeVier turned back to LaRocca. “One of my best teachers,” he says after the second go-round. “He really did miracles for me.” LaRocca also won his student over on jazz. By the time LeVier arrived at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, he’d decided to major in jazz performance.
Since finishing college, LeVier has been a successful freelance musician, and has also worked in the funk-fusion project Berkana with guitarist Nat Janoff and bassist François Moutin. His most frequent gig, however, is with Denhert, whose music is a rootsy mix of folk, rock, jazz and soul. “We play a club in New York called the 55 Bar, have been there every other Saturday for 10 years now,” he says. “She’s also doing a lot of touring, and we’ve been playing the jazz festival in Umbria, the summer and winter versions, for the last four years.” The job has kept LeVier so busy that it’s only now, at 39, that he’s recorded his debut with Ray’s Way. “I guess life has a way of moving very fast,” he says. “You get busy with doing your gigs and living your life, and although it’s something I always wanted to do I put it on the backburner.”
The disc actually began several years ago in a trio session with guitarist Mike Stern and bassist Ned Mann; encouraged by his wife, Nury, and all who heard it, LeVier recorded a second session with Stern, Moutin and saxophonist Dave Binney, then finished with a larger band including Moutin, Binney, vibraphonist Joe Locke, guitarist John Abercrombie and soprano saxophonist Federico Turreni. Ray’s Way has a fusion-ish sound, thanks to Abercrombie’s solidbody guitar and LeVier’s own rockish style. “That’s kind of where I came from,” he remarks. Fusion drummers, he adds, have been a particular inspiration. “To me those were the drummers that had a real grasp on things, the ones that can play different styles from different worlds, but make it sound good.”
LeVier is inadvertently describing himself along with his mentors. His ability to master drums across genres testifies to his perseverance as well as his talent.
Originally published in May 2009