I’m thrilled to share my conversation with Ray Suhy about his newly released jazz album Transcendent with the Ray Suhy & Lewis Porter Quartet. This album title captures not only the music on the album but is applicable to Suhy as a guitar player. His jazz performances are extraordinary and he transcends labeling by also playing with Six Feet Under and Cannabis Corpse, popular death metal bands. When first meeting Suhy, his soft spoken, good natured, friendly demeanor is in direct contrast to his ace death metal shredding and intricate jazz solos. However, as I spoke to Suhy, his passion for music and love of both genres brings it all together.
The new album was released April 17, 2020 and is a riveting collection of jazz pieces written by Suhy & Porter. They are joined by Brad Jones on bass and powerhouse Rudy Royston on drums ensuring the strength of the music. A highlight for me is the energized, dynamic song called “Determination,” but all the songs offer a journey through some great music. It’s too bad that because of the current pandemic we will have to wait to see it performed live, but I look forward to seeing them play when things open up. I asked Suhy if any of his metal fans have become jazz fans, but I can say that this jazz fan better understands death metal and I hope to catch him play one of those concerts as well.
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Interview and Photography by Fredda Gordon.
Fredda Gordon: Thank you for joining me. Where are you joining me from?
Ray Suhy: I live in Asbury Park, New Jersey
FG: Is that where you grew up?
RS: No, I grew up in a town called Biddeford Maine, about about 20 minutes from Portland. I moved to Jersey in 2014.
FG: Why did you move?
RS: I was playing in this band in Jersey and going to New York playing sessions a lot so I was driving back and forth from Maine all the time.
FG: Oh, man. That’s a long drive.
RS: Yeah, it was getting really old [laughter]. I would drive down to Brooklyn to play a gig and then drive back that night to get back to work.
FG: What was work?
RS: Teaching. Luckily I’ve been teaching guitar lessons since 2005.
FG: Was there music in your house growing up?
RS: Yeah, when I was about two or three, my first memories anyway, I remember my mom always playing music. When I woke up in the morning my mom was always playing records. It was the classic rock of that time, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, even Jim Croce and stuff like that. It was always playing around the house. That continued for awhile, until I was probably 10 or 11 or so, and then at that point I got into music heavily and I was playing music all the time myself. One of my first gifts was a little record player, one of those little portable ones, and she gave me some 45s. “You’re So Vain” was one of the first 45s I had when I was like 3 years old [laughter]. Thankfully she was playing music a lot and that that made a big impact. When I was in my teens I’m like ‘Man, I really love that song’ and my mom was like “Oh, I played it and sang it all of the time to you when you were a little kid.”
FG: What was your first meaningful music experience?
RS: I was always obsessed with the sound of a guitar. I just had to play it. I didn’t get a guitar until I was in sixth grade. The band director came into the room and said “Hey, you guys want to play in band?” I’m like ‘Sure, I love music. You have a guitar?’ He said “No, but you can play electric bass.” So, I actually started on bass when I was 11 or so. Thankfully I learned to read music from that. The next year for Christmas I got a guitar.
FG: That’s funny they had a bass and not a guitar.
RS: I know, yeah. I actually played bass in the concert band because we didn’t have any upright basses in the school. We didn’t have too many tuba players so I was playing the role of tuba [laughing].
FG: When did you start playing professionally?
RS: I was in my 20s, after I went to college for a little bit. When I came back home I played in bands after that. I was a total bedroom player for a long time. I had my bands as a teenager and in high school but I never crossed that bridge of playing out until my twenties.
FG: You mentioned college.
RS: Yeah, I went to Berklee College of Music for a little bit and then I went to a new school jazz program in Manhattan for a bit. Both of those were super, super helpful.
FG: When was that moment where you thought you wanted to do this?
RS: The first instrument I bought… I had a paper route when I was 10 or 11, maybe even 9, and I bought a keyboard for myself because I wanted a keyboard. I just wanted to play music. I would sit there with the keyboard and try to pick out melodies from the TV. I always wanted to play. When I first started playing bass I [thought] ‘I can do this!’ Everything else I tried I got interested in for a bit and then lost interest, but when I started to play music [it was like a] little light bulb. I was always going to love music regardless but at that moment I thought ‘I can make this work.’ Then when I got a guitar I just got obsessed and that was it.
FG: What kind of music did you start out playing?
RS: Classic rock, Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Cream. I was heavily into those four things and then I got into Van Halen and the 80’s rock for the day and AC/DC and all that stuff. Those were the first things.
FG: When did jazz and heavy metal enter, and which came first?
RS: The heavy metal probably came first, when I was 13. 13, 14 was a really big metal period for me. Then a lot of my guitar heroes in that scene were always talking about jazz guys. They were talking about either jazz guitar players or John Coltrane. When you play metal all the time usually when you get back on the bus, if you listen to music you’re gonna listen to something almost completely opposite. You kind of cleanse your ears of the day and relax and a lot of those guys were really into jazz.
There’s also a point when you get into music where if you’re playing a classic rock thing and you want to go a little deeper into harmony and the complexity of that side of things. The path for me was either jazz or classical and when I first heard a Coltrane record, and a George Benson record, I was blown away and I started to get obsessed with it. That was at 15 years old.
FG: When you listen to heavy metal and jazz there’s a big difference, but is there a big difference in the two for you?
RS: Not for me. Music has always been about feeling and catharsis and different moods. I equate it to food. It’s like food for me. Food and music are pretty tied in. I don’t want to eat the same thing every day and I like a bunch of different types of cuisine. I wouldn’t want to stick to just one thing. For me, jazz is like that. I can listen to jazz one day, metal one day, folk one day, it doesn’t matter. All that stuff to me is the same thing. As far as the similarities, they’re very similar. I lose myself in both things the same way and I’m trying to get out the same feelings. Obviously, the metal stuff is more aggressive, it has that more visceral, physical element to it but jazz can get that way as well.
FG: I’ve seen you perform metal stuff online and I wondered, since it’s also intense when you play jazz, do you ever feel like doing the metal thing on the jazz stage stage?
RS: [Laughing] No, not usually. The jazz stuff is more of an internal process when I’m up on stage. Of course I want to be entertaining for the crowd but the metal is a little more about sharing the experience and having fun with the crowd and relating on that level with everyone, the energy in the room.
FG: As a side note, I noticed that there’s so much anger in metal lyrics.
RS: Yeah, there can be. I think that has to do with fitting the music. The music is very hard and abrasive. There can be political lyrics in that stuff, there can be personal lyrics too. It’s like horror movies in music. If you watch any horror movie it’s gory, chainsaws, people cutting people up. The death metal stuff is that in a song.
FG: I’m not a death metal fan but I’ve been listening to your music and there’s a really good energy to it and I look at the lyrics and I’m a bit dismayed but I understand why people like to come out to see it.
RS: Yeah [laughing]
FG: Your new jazz album came out on April 17th. Congratulations! I love it.
RS: Thanks so much. I’m excited about it.
FG: How do you come up with names for the songs, and who is Mr. Tyner?
RS: Mr. Tyner is McCoy Tyner. This is the one unfortunate thing. McCoy Tyner is a big influence on me and was a big influence on me when I was a kid, when I first heard those Coltrane records. That big sound he had and super precise playing with lots of energy and drive. So, he’s been a big force in my musical life for awhile and I was writing this piece and messing around with some things that he does and thought ‘I’ll write this piece as a tribute to McCoy.’ This was last summer and unfortunately just a month or two ago McCoy passed away, before the record came out, so it ended up being a tribute.
It’s usually just the feeling of the piece. I’ll try to get an idea what the feeling of the piece is and some kind of title that will express that. Once in a while I’ll get an idea for a title and I’ll jot it down somewhere and then maybe try to write from that but what works best for me is I write the piece, then I’ll record a little demo of it at home and just listen to it for awhile to see how it makes me feel. With “Trail of Loss” I had just lost my stepdad and I was playing around with some stuff and that came out. Shortly after that I lost my cousin. In 2019 I lost a bunch of people so the words “Trail of Loss” came into my head so I wrote that down.
FG: You talked a little about the ideas for the songs. Do they just come to you?
RS: Sometimes, not all the time unfortunately. That inspiration happens once in a blue moon but usually I’ll get an idea for a sound that I want to express. Like the song “Determination,” I wanted something kind of upbeat a little quicker that had some energy to it. That ended up being a fast piece with this kind of fusion-y beat to it. “Walk In The Fall” I was experimenting with scales. When I write I limit myself to a certain set of parameters. I’ll think ‘Okay, I’m going to use this scale only,’ or ‘I’m going to only use these four notes from this scale.’ Then I try to be as creative as I can with those notes and that creative exercise usually leads me to something that I really like. Writing isn’t all about inspiration, you have to sit down and do it. And there’s so much that you can do with music. There’s so many different sounds and scales and chords that if I don’t limit myself I’d never come up with anything.
FG: Do you still practice in addition to playing?
RS: Yeah, all the time, every day. It’s important to keep me level. It took me a long time to realize it, but working hard every day and staying focused on achieving something with that practice and growing constantly is something that keeps me happy. Every day I wake up, make some coffee and pick up the guitar and practice. Try to find new things on the guitar that I can’t do and try to improve my my playing every day somehow.
FG: For how long?
RS: There isn’t too much of a time frame. Usually 2 to 3 hours in the morning, sometimes more and then maybe another hour or two in the afternoon before before I start teaching. I try to get my practicing in during the day because I teach a lot now and after I teach for 6 or 7 hours I can’t really get the energy up to play.
FG: Is there something you wish you could do musically?
RS: There’s a few things. I’d like to do a trio this year at some point. Just me, bass and drums. I would like to tour Europe. As far as musically on the instrument I just want to get better and hone in on the vision and playing that I have that’s on the new record.
FG: What do you do that’s not musical? Anything?
RS: My life pretty much revolves around music. Aside from just hanging out with friends, I like movies a lot. I watch a lot of movies.
FG: What’s the best and worst thing about touring?
RS: I love touring! The best part is being in a new city every day and playing for new people and meeting new people. That’s my favorite thing. I love playing so it’s always fun. The travel sometimes is a little tough but you get used to it. You get used to not sleeping as much as you do at home and not being as comfortable. But once you settle into that, after about a week it’s smooth sailing.
FG: Do you know of any metal fans that have become jazz fans because of you?
RS: I don’t exactly if I’ve done that for people but I hope so because that’s how I got exposed to jazz, through my metal heroes talking about it. [Fans] seem to be interacting on my Facebook [posts]. I had someone tell me that I should make a separate profile for my jazz and metal stuff and I thought about that for a second, but that’s not me. I do both. If I do a blues record tomorrow I’m not gonna make a separate page for that. So, it’s interesting, when I post stuff some of the metal guys will be like “That’s pretty cool.” That’s always cool to see.
FG: Do you know of any crazy thing a fan has done?
RS: It’s not crazy but I’ll give pics away and people will sell them and I’ll see them being sold all over the world. That’s always strange to me. People used to write me all the time and ask for my pics and at first I thought, “Wow! this is crazy, someone wants my pics,” so I sent someone a bunch of pics and then I found them all on eBay from all these different people [laughter]. It’s odd to me. I mean, those people collect pics and they trade, that’s what they do. It just struck me as so weird.
FG: You’re an icon that they’re trading.
RS: Yeah, that’s super odd.
FG: I’m curious about something. The heave metal shows are so loud, how do you hear what other people are playing?
RS: Until you get into the bigger budgets, or you take it upon yourself, a lot of people run in-ear monitors but I don’t use that. I don’t mind because I grew up playing in bands like this. When you’re on stage a lot of people would be surprised what it sounds like for the player. I just have this little monitor in front of me and I’ll ask for the most important things that help me stay with the song. If I ask for everything in the monitor I’ll end up getting the bass guitar louder than everything else because the sound guys are just throwing levels in. For my monitor I only ask for the drums. So, what I hear on stage is mostly my guitar and the drummer. But if you focus your listening out, peripheral hearing I call it, you can hear everything else. It doesn’t really sound that great on stage but then when I hear the clips I’m like ‘Oh! that’s awesome, that sounds great!’
FG: I’ve interviewed a couple of metal and jazz women and it seems there aren’t many women in the industry. What are your thoughts about this?
RS: There’s a rising surge of women in metal and guitar music in general lately. A lot of upcoming players that are ripping it up and hopefully that takes hold soon. The metal world’s getting a lot more accepting of it. Metals actually been getting very wide open and accepting of a lot of different people being involved in metal, all races, all genders, all sexual preferences. Metal is a lot more open now than it was. And, jazz too. There’s so many women killing it right now, it’s great. I went to West Virginia University for a very brief time but while I was there I got to play it with Allison Miller who’s a fantastic drummer, she’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever played with in my life, and she’s killing it now. It’s great!
FG: If you could play with anyone who would it be?
RS: The guy on my record, Rudy Royston, is my favorite drummer. If I could play this music with him all the time I would do that in a heartbeat. If I could lock him down. But he plays with Bill Frissel and cats like that. All the heavy heavy guys. I’m so lucky to get him on the record.
FG: What are you doing to get through this pandemic?
RS: I’m fortunate that I still teach a lot. Sometimes I get burnt out from teaching and I wish I could play more, but at times like these I’m lucky that I teach so much, so that’s been keeping me afloat. A lot of my friends that that are only gigging for their income took a big hit. It really sucks. Some of them are finding homes online, streaming concerts and doing things. One of one of my friends is walking basslines. People send him donations and he’ll walk basslines for an hour every day so you can jam along to it.
FG: That’s a good idea.
RS: Yeah, really creative solution there. For me it’s tough. It’s hard to complain about stuff when people are really struggling, but as a musician and a creative person, you’re always working toward something and you have these things to look forward to. Something really great to prepare for and be excited about. You have this forward momentum going. This record Transcendent came out and we had a bunch of shows booked for it. We were supposed to play in Red Bank next week and then the following week Manhattan. We had some really good shows booked for the quartet. As far as the jazz thing goes, I play gigs with Allen [Lowe] and Rob [Landis]. I made a resolution this year that I was going to play more jazz out [laughter] so I’m like ‘aarrgghh’ and trying to keep that in the back of my head. I’m going to do that as soon as things open up. I was really going for it, I was booking shows I never booked my own shows before, I was in situations, so I was really getting into booking shows and it was going well. Then stuff hit. Thankfully I can work and I can support myself, but other than that… I say I practice all the time but I have to have some goals so I’m transcribing a bunch of solos right now that I’ve always wanted to learn. I have a list of things that I want to accomplish and I’m trying to just chip away at that to stay productive, to keep that feeling going of working towards something.
FG: Is there anything else you would like to share about the album?
RS: The record was mixed by James della Tacoma, and, man, I’m getting a lot of compliments on the sound which is great. Everyone is really liking the sound and I’m really pleased with how it came out. We got Sunnyside Records to put it out for us, I’m really thankful for them. The album’s great, even if you don’t like my guitar playing just like listen to it for the rhythm section. Those guys are great!
FG: How can anyone not like your guitar playing?
RS: But those guys are really…Brad Jones on bass, Rudy Royce on drums, and Lewis Porter on piano. They’re just… they’re playing their asses off. I’m really excited about the record. You always listen to your records and hear all the mistakes [laughter] I’m still hearing that a little bit but I can hear it for what it is now and I’m pretty happy with it.