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The Dean of Jazz Guitarists In Western Australia, Ray Walker



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Barth checks in with Western Australia’s Ray Walker.

Ray Walker is one of Western Australia’s leading professional guitarists. A versatile and accomplished player across many styles, Ray has performed in a duo format with many world-class guitarists such as Martin Taylor, Peter Leitch, Gary Potter, John Pisano, and the late Emily Remler. A veteran of literally thousands of recording sessions for radio and TV, Ray has also appeared with the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra in numerous concerts since 1965, including a performance as a soloist on classical guitar in Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’. In 2000 he recorded his own CD ‘Affinity’ in Los Angeles with well-known American guitarist John Pisano.

JB:  What led you toward playing jazz?

RW:  After studying violin for 7 years as a child, I became interested in the guitar in my early teens, specifically after my family moved to England in the late 1950s. British instrumental groups such as ‘The Shadows’ were extremely popular then and I would try to emulate the sound of Hank Marvin’s Stratocaster with my cheap plywood acoustic!   After my family emigrated to Australia in 1960, I came across an album by Charlie Byrd called Blues Sonata. This was my first experience of hearing somebody improvising in a jazz style on guitar (albeit a nylon string) and it made a big impression on me. When I was about 19, a close  friend of mine who played bass, played me some albums by Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel and I was hooked!

JB:  Did you study jazz guitar in college and if so, what did you appreciate most about that era of development? 

 RW:  No, I am completely self-taught.  In the early years, I listened a lot and took every opportunity to sit in with experienced musicians.  I would go along to a jazz venue after finishing a gig with my regular ‘dance band’  and  jam until daylight  sometimes!

My ‘go-to’ book was the well-known Mickey Baker’s Complete Course in Jazz Guitar. From this, I learned all about extended and altered chords, intros, and endings and substitute changes on the blues, etc…  Looking back, I would say my progress was much slower than students in college jazz programs these days, but I feel it helped me in developing a very good ‘ear’ and the ability to relate to other members of the group.

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

RW:  Well, to narrow it down to three will take some doing!  For starters, Django Reinhardt’s Djangology knocked me out on the first hearing and even though I don’t play Gypsy guitar, the emotion and excitement in  Django’s playing on that album are an object lesson for any guitarist in any style.  

I would undoubtedly nominate Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note with the Wynton Kelly Trio as one of the great jazz guitar albums.  Here is Wes in full flight with that incredible tone and swing. It has inspired so many guitarists and to me, it set a standard for all ‘live’ jazz guitar albums since. 

Lastly, Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life influenced me enormously. Everything about the album sounded new to me.  Pat’s unique sound, his compositions, and his soloing introduced a new giant of jazz guitar to us.

JB: Ian MacGregor, Garry Lee and you started the Jazz Guitar Society of Western Australia and through that organization, you brought some of the greatest jazz guitarists to the Perth area.  Let me ask about a few, tell us about performing with or hosting…

 …Barney Kessel?

One of my very first influences who amazed me by getting a sound onstage that was indistinguishable from his recordings! And what swing, even though he played the whole concert solo. 

…Joe Pass? 

I got to play a couple of tunes with Joe at a workshop he did for the Society. Afterward, he said to the students ….”You guys needn’t worry …this guy knows what he’s doing!”   I’ll take that as a compliment Joe!

 …Martin Taylor?

A wonderful solo guitarist who graciously invited me to join him onstage for the 

second half of his concert.  Incidentally, he happened to be in town the same day as Joe Pass was giving a lunchtime concert at the University where I taught. We called him at his hotel, and he grabbed his guitar and a cab and raced over so that he could join Joe onstage.

 …John Scofield?

Ian and I went along to John’s soundcheck, and he very kindly gave us a nice long interview for our newsletter.  He’s an unmistakable ‘voice’ on the instrument and is one of my favorites.

… Emily Remler?

On both occasions that Emily came to Perth, she invited me up to play a set with her. What a fine player she was. When I recorded my album in Los Angeles,  I dedicated one of my compositions to her (“ For Emily”).  She was such an admirer of Wes that I played the whole tune with my thumb to try and get ‘that’ sound!

JB:  Tell us about the album you recorded with John Pisano?

RW:  When John and his wife Jeanne came to Perth as Artists in Residence at the University where I taught (for 33 years), we played for the students in my Improvisation classes. This resulted in John inviting me to come to L.A. and record an album with him which I did in 2000. I thought I had better include some original material, so I wrote five tunes, and we chose five standards to complete the album.  The album, called Affinity, was released on the Jardis label in Germany.  It was just John and myself with the great Chuck Berghofer on bass on some tracks and John Leftwich on others. For the recording, John loaned me the same ES175 that he used to accompany Joe Pass on Joe’s classic For Django album in 1964.  I was saddened to hear of John’s passing recently. He was a wonderful accompanist and was ‘The Godfather’ of jazz guitar in the Los Angeles area.

JB:  What do you appreciate most about the guitar that you use?

RW:  After doing session work for many years I have accumulated a number of different guitars but for jazz, I have mostly used a Gibson ES175.  After using a 1960s Gibson Barney Kessel for some years, followed by a 1978 Gibson L5, I found the ES175 to be the most comfortable for me in terms of size and scale length.  I’m a firm believer that most of the tone comes from the player anyway so I go with what’s comfortable! 

JB:  You have taught a lot of young guitarists.  Any general word you would say to a young guitarist, with some facility on the instrument, and beginning his or her career?  

RW:  Well, it’s been said before but it bears repeating …..there is only one ‘you’,  so you must try to express that individuality in your playing. Transcribing your favorite players will give you some ‘language’ to draw on but don’t focus on one particular player or even on guitarists alone. Try to develop anything you can identify as original in your playing. Above all, learn to ‘hear’ what you play rather than ‘letting your fingers do the walking’ as they say.

JB:  Talk about the jazz scene in Perth and one or two of the gigs that you have found most rewarding there.

RW:  The scene here is not big in terms of venues but is healthy.   With Perth being the most isolated city of its size in the world (the nearest big city is Adelaide 1,315 miles away ) we don’t get a lot of International jazz acts coming through but the standard of our local musicians is very high. This I think is due to the Jazz Degree program that has been running at Edith Cowan University since 1984.  Some notable alumni from this program are Dane Alderson (bass player with the Yellowjackets) Linda Oh (bass player with Pat Metheny Group) and Troy Roberts (two-time Grammy-nominated saxophonist). 

One gig that I fondly remember was a night at ‘The Ellington’, Perth’s premier jazz club. This was a group put together by myself and Freddie Grigson (a fine local player) which featured the great Peter Bernstein who was visiting Perth. Other gigs that stand out as being very rewarding weren’t actually in the Jazz genre. In the 1980s I was the soloist on Classical guitar, performing  Rodrigo’s  ‘Concerto de Aranjuez’ with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and just last year I played at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by one of my daughters, Jessica Gethin.

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