Pianist/clarinetist/composer/arranger Tom Ranier is one of Southern California’s top jazz improvisers, a musician both technically resplendent and emotionally open. At the keyboard, he reveals an increasingly personal style that bears the influence of Oscar Peterson’s bravura and bluesiness, Chick Corea’s at once intricate and beautiful melodies, and Bill Evans’s chordal brilliance. As a composer and arranger, he has a broad orchestral palette and a keen sense of melody and harmony. His clarinet and alto and tenor saxophone playing is top-notch as well.
Despite performances with the likes of vibist Terry Gibbs, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, and saxophonists Lanny Morgan, George Coleman, Lew Tabackin, and Pete Christlieb, Ranier has remained one of the jazz community’s best-kept secrets. In the Still of the Night, the multifaceted artist’s Contemporary debut and his first album as a leader in over 15 years, should take care of that. This collection is both extremely musical and decidedly listenable, and should garner Ranier both strong airplay along with wider recognition for his abundant talents.
In the Still of the Night spotlights a piano-bass-drums trio in the company of a string and woodwind orchestra. Of course, the splendid piano here is played by Ranier—he also offers some remarkably adroit clarinet on two selections, and alto sax on one other—and he’s keenly accompanied by bassists Abraham Laboriel and Chuck Berghofer, and drummers Harvey Mason and Paul Kreibich. Five of the eleven compositions are Ranier’s, as are all of the subtle, dynamic arrangements. The recording marks the fruition of a project that the leader had longed to complete.
“I wanted to do something that would embody a lot of different influences that I’m fond of,” says Ranier, naming first the pianists Peterson, Corea, Evans, and others. For the orchestral writing, Ranier cited such composer-arrangers as the famed songwriter-film soundtrack composer Michel Legrand, the great Nelson Riddle, who wrote so many superb charts for Frank Sinatra, and Eddie Sauter, creator of the orchestra on Stan Getz’s classic album, Focus.
“I was attracted to the orchestra early on,” says Ranier, who studied writing in high school and then at Cal State Fullerton. “One of the first records that I really liked was Charlie Parker with strings, the way he soared over the orchestra. I wanted to capture some of that feeling. I also wanted the orchestra to be very involved at times, in terms of interacting with the trio, while at other times it is in the background.”
The 11 selections offer an ear-pleasing variety of moods. Both Ranier’s “July” and “Excuse Me” and Cole Porter’s title track have a delicious modern bent. “July” has a hint of latter-day Miles Davis influence, Ranier says, and “Excuse Me” is somewhat harmonically related to “What Is This Thing Called Love” but “we really depart from that.” For “In the Still of the Night,” Ranier improvises off the contrapuntal lines in the orchestra. “This is one tune where I tried to integrate some of the more abstract writing,” he says.
Several of the tunes, among them “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and “You Must Believe in Spring,” were played simply because the leader was so taken by their melodies. His own lovely “An Hour from Your Heart” is similarly a ballad that he liked. “Nights and Promise” is an attempt to “be melodic,” he says, as is the samba-esque “Teach Me Your Paths.” These succeed on all counts.
“Where or When,” “Memories of You,” and “Summer Me, Winter Me” have personal touches. Ranier played “Where or When” as a pianist on dance jobs with his father, a saxophonist and clarinetist; and “Memories” was a number often performed by Benny Goodman, a household favorite. It was a Buddy DeFranco rendition of Legrand’s “Summer Me” that inspired Ranier’s; here he plays sprightly clarinet (as he does on “Memories”), orchestrates a solo DeFranco recorded and plays all the parts via overdubs, then trades phrases with himself on piano, also via overdubs. This is a tour de force performance.
Ranier was exhilarated by his cohorts. “Chuck and Paul were supportive and swinging, Harvey and Abe were extremely creative and inventive,” he says.
The leader says the album came out just as he wanted. “It’s where I am right now, a summation of my influences and experiences,” he says. “I feel good about it and I’m looking forward to doing more.”
Ranier was born in Chicago on July 13, 1949. He moved with his family to Garden Grove, in Southern California’s Orange County. He remembers being charmed by clarinetist Goodman’s records at age six or seven. He took up piano at age ten, studying the classical regimen, then added clarinet at age 12. Ranier says he didn’t pursue a concert piano career because, “After hearing Benny, I always wanted to play jazz.”
While a student at Santiago High School in Garden Grove, Ranier worked with his father on gigs, and studied arranging with the noted writer Jack Daugherty, whose A&M album, Class of ’71, was a jazz cult classic. Then Ranier moved on to Cal State Fullerton, where he received a B.A. in Composition in 1972.
Slowly, surely, Ranier established a reputation as a solid jazzman with performances with vibist Dave Pike, saxman Pete Christlieb, a band he co-led with drummer Sherman Ferguson and bassist John Heard, and many others. In 1975, he recorded for Warner Bros., and in the early ’80s, for the First American label. Lately, he’s worked with the Terry Gibbs-Buddy DeFranco Sextet, George Coleman, and Lew Tabackin, and recorded with altoist Lanny Morgan (Contemporary’s Pacific Standard).
Ranier has also long been a primary member of the Southern California studio scene. Among his recent activities include performing on the film scores Forrest Gump and Space Jam (with Michael Jordan), TV soundtracks like Diagnosis Murder with Dick Van Dyke, and singer Natalie Cole’s latest album Stardust.
If not performing, practicing, or writing, Ranier is likely to be found at U.C.L.A., where he’s a part of the new Jazz Studies program headed by guitarist Kenny Burrell, and teaches jazz piano and jazz theory.
It’s clear that Tom Ranier’s intuition was right, and glad it is that he has made a life in jazz. “I feel I have been given a gift and I want to develop that,” he says. “I don’t know where it will go, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that I go ahead and do it.”
In the Still of the Night, an album full of musicality and nuance, is proof positive of Ranier’s gifts. He’s definitely going somewhere, and somewhere good.