We tend to think of musicians in terms of what immediate and obvious role they play in a band: singers, songwriters, guitarists, drummers, bassists, keyboardists, string and horn sections and the like. But sometime the greatest value of a musical artist is something more foundational.
“Bandleader” was a common designation in the mid-20th century, when jazz orchestras rallied around the leadership of Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the like. Rock ‘n’ roll set forth a more egalitarian model: There might be a frontman (or woman), but the idea was that everyone contributed to the unit’s identity and creativity.
This was largely a positive development in popular music. But being a bandleader still remains a distinctive quality. You might not be the most talented instrumentalist onstage, or the most dazzling singer, perhaps not even the liveliest performer. But all great bandleaders share one vital virtue: They can get other musicians to follow their vision.
That’s Ray Prim, at his core. Never has this been more apparent than on Friday night at North Door, when he expanded his core seven-piece band to include guest musicians on electric guitar, saxophone, cello and viola, in addition to inviting a few featured vocalists to join him on several songs. (See our video above for excerpts from the show.) They all throw in because Prim knows how to draw upon their individual talents to create a grander sound that fills out the music he hears in his head.
READ MORE: Songwriter Ray Prim seeks out musical magic with an expansive palette
In that respect, the artist Prim has most reminded me of since I first saw him and his group a year ago is Alejandro Escovedo, the longtime Austin performer who moved to Dallas last year. That’s not to say their music is anything alike, really: Prim is his own artist, in the same way indie-rock great Spoon is different than 1980s local alt-rockers the Reivers who preceded them, and Gary Clark Jr. is more than simply a modern blues-rock version of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But it’s hard not to think of the early-’90s Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra when watching Prim with his extended crew. Like Escovedo, Prim is open to drawing upon the folk/classical elements of strings, the multicultural influences of rhythm, and occasionally the funk/jazz punch of horns. In addition, both men are masters of dynamics, both within a song and in the greater arc of constructing a set list.
They also can make their material thrive in a variety of formats. Escovedo’s “orchestra” ranged in size from three to more than a dozen musicians on any given night, and that worked because the songs, at their base, were strong. Witness Prim and singer Mexican Chocolate performing as an acoustic duo in our Statesman studio last week:
WATCH: Austin360 Artist of the Month Ray Prim, “Stormy Haze”
Mexican Chocolate is an immediate focal point at Prim’s live shows, with a voice full of personality that often soars dramatically above the surroundings. Each time I see Prim, though, I become more impressed with other elements of his core band. It’s hard to overemphasize the value of twin fiddlers April Stephens and Kristen Randolph, bookending Prim and Mexican Chocolate at stage front and bringing out the melodic strengths of his music. And the more I watch expressive keyboardist Marianna Tanguy, whose charisma beams from her back-row spot with the rhythm section, the more I’m inclined to think she may be Prim’s lurking secret weapon.
Both Prim and Escovedo were late bloomers as solo artists, hitting their stride in their 40s. In terms of “making it in the music business,” Prim has an uphill battle, and he knows it. He’s a few years older than Escovedo was when Escovedo’s solo debut “Gravity” came out in 1992. And back then, there was still a defined path to follow: Get a label behind you, sell a good chunk of records to support a tour, and gradually build a national audience. The demise of album sales has made the way forward much murkier, though there are now alternative avenues (such as local patron organization Black Fret, which helped make Prim’s new album possible and whose members turned out in force on Friday night).
When I interviewed Prim last month, he talked about how he takes the idea of “making it big” in stride, preferring to work his day job at IBM and let the music be its own reward. “What I didn’t like was me trying to push it along,” he said. I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of Escovedo telling me back in 1990, when he was working at Waterloo Records while playing out with his Orchestra at Hole in the Wall and the Continental Club, that the idea of a “career” simply wasn’t what it was all about for him.
Within a couple of years, Escovedo was on his way, even as a couple decades of hard but rewarding work awaited him. I don’t know if such a thing can happen with Prim, in this day and age. But I do believe he’s that good.