John Raymond’s Foreign Territory was one of the most impressive records of 2015, for its articulation of creativity within the bounds of tradition. Where that disc was composed mostly of originals often inspired by classic songs, Real Feels investigates classics through sly deconstruction and unabashed emotion.
Raymond is a trumpeter of bright clarity and subtle panache. His shift to flugelhorn for all nine songs on the debut of the Real Feels trio highlights both of those attributes, yet hearing the flugelhorn on the depression-era gospel rave-up “I’ll Fly Away” (complete with handclaps) or the gymnastic bop standard “Donna Lee” puts a distinctive tweak on the proceedings. His solo prelude to “Amazing Grace” is an especially charming example of his understated prowess, a succinct yet seamlessly retailored harbinger of the famous hymn.
The auspicious trio includes drummer Colin Stranahan and guitarist Gilad Hekselman, the latter of whom was on Raymond’s debut disc, Strength & Song, and provides harmonic ingenuity here much as pianist Dan Tepfer did on Foreign Territory. The song choices are idiosyncratic. Hekselman gets rock-star fuzzy and gritty on Dave Holland’s tribute to Charles Mingus, “Blues for C.M.,” which appears right after a gentle tossing of the traditional folk ballad “Scarborough Fair.” Radiohead leader Thom Yorke’s compassionate “Atoms for Peace” is given a stronger, sunnier treatment than the original. And the deconstruction of Woody Guthrie’s populist anthem “This Land Is Your Land” opens itself to all sorts of political speculation.
The live album repeats material from the debut on four of its six tracks but at nearly double the length, a stretched canvas mostly allotted to deeper solos and more ethereal effects. (The other two new songs are “Yesterday,” a Beatles swap with “Blackbird” from the studio disc, and the closing “Minor Silverstein,” by Raymond’s former Twin Cities cohort, bassist Chris Morrissey.)
In the end, as with Foreign Territory, Real Feels is about Raymond finding himself anew in the music. The concentrated joy and dedication of his scholarship is loosened by his open-hearted approach to the material. Live, Vol. 1 demonstrates that time together has enabled Hekselman and Stranahan to better absorb Raymond’s cue of contemplative immersion, and to find their own innovative ways to wield the trio’s unique instrumentation.