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Ray Angry of The Roots branches out with symphony premiere

Scott Haas
Ray Angry of The Roots branches out with symphony premiere
Pianist and composer Ray Angry. COURTESY PHOTO

Ray Angry, pianist and composer in The Roots, the house band on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” will have the world premiere of his symphony “Black Athena-Power” with the Lexington Symphony on Saturday, Nov. 19. The classical arrangement may not be what is expected from this musician, whose work is associated with funk and soul and jazz. But Angry’s love for music breaks new ground. The Banner caught up with him by phone at his home
in New York City.

Tell us about ‘Black Athena-Power’ as an orchestral composition. I know that it’s connected to Martin Bernal’s controversial book, “Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization,” about ancient Greece.
‘Black Athena’ is a sonic representation of an analysis of power throughout time. The piece starts in Egypt and explores the life of people during that time period, something like 3000 B.C., when civilization was still being organized, and when people were learning how to live. Those basic principles of living are a lost knowledge.

Ray Angry PHOTO: Courtesy Karyzma Agency

How do you express that musically?
When you have tension sonically, as in the first movement of the piece, it’s very intense! Influenced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, for example, if you would imagine like a hurricane that destroys everything, but by the end, the clouds disappear, the sun is out, the birds are singing, it’s very peaceful and meditative.

How is all that structured?
I’m taking you on a journey. The first movement is named the Age of Aries, which represents when Egypt was young. The second movement is the Age of Aquarius, and it is more of a march taking us through the African slave trade when America was young. The final movement is the Age of Pisces, our current time period, with technology and big corporations, and with hip-hop a worldwide sensation.

How did this all come about, from ‘Late Night’ and ‘The Tonight Show’ with The Roots to Lexington, Massachusetts?
To be honest, the pandemic happened! I felt like I was a sleeping giant. I studied classical music since I was a very young, young lad. Frank Cooper, my piano teacher, was one of the world’s leading authorities on Bach. That was my upbringing. Then I went to Howard University, where I studied jazz, which was added to my plate, already full of classical and gospel. I was always composing. When you’re playing music in church, it’s similar to an orchestral setting, because you set the tone for the service, you’re orchestrating people’s lives, getting deep into meditation. And as far as a symphony: It was always something I wanted to do, but never had the opportunity. What happened was this: Keith McPhee, the tour manager for The Roots, introduced me to his brother, Jonathan, who is the music director of the Lexington Symphony Orchestra!

And your 2018 recording, ‘One,’ which I enjoy listening to — what went into those compositions?
I watched a lot of films by Spike Lee, and films made in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s: old Hollywood movies. The old films are overly dramatic, and that album is meant to sound like one of those movie soundtracks.

When we consider the range of your work, from The Roots to Esperanza Spalding to Mick Jagger, what’s the constant?
I try to be open, to be selfless. I try to provide a service.  That’s the heart of what I want to add to a project. To work from a space of humility. After decades and decades of incredible music, I still consider myself a student.

What’s up for you in 2023?
I have a three-LP box set of solo piano music coming out; I’m very excited about the artwork, which was done by Jill Greenberg. We’ll see if something else materializes with a TV show, too, something creative, entertaining and educational, especially for young kids. To help them not be afraid, and instead to dream and imagine.

If it’s not OK, you’ll tell me, but may I ask you about your name? You have a  great name. You must come from an Angry family.
(Laughs) That’s my real name! My father researched the name, and from what I remember, it originates from Wales.