One Wednesday night at Berbati's Pan, with his jazz combo the Original Cats taking a break between sets, pianist Ramsey Embick sits down for a quick beer and a story.
Los Angeles, circa 1990. Embick is a rising studio musician and recording engineer. He's laying down a few tracks with heavy metal demon-gods KISS. Embick programs a basic drum-machine beat for Gene Simmons, he of the tongue of myth and legend, to play guitar to. Finished, Embick asks the metal messiah if the track sounds all right.
Simmons laughs. "You're asking the wrong guy," he says.
"It wasn't about the music at all for him," Embick recalls now, barside at Berbati's. "It was all about the money." Not long after that ill-fated session--for which he was never paid--Embick decided to end a long spell in L.A. and return to his native Oregon.
"The money was a massive distraction," he says. "I got really sidetracked by that. In Los Angeles, it's really cool playing with the baddest cats, but they're all trying to make a buck."
Since moving to Portland in 1991, Salem-born Embick has quietly established a reputation as one of the most reliable jazz pianists around. "Ramsey's a monster, a world-class guy," says Craig Mayther, a local musician who has known Embick since high school. "He's been ignored for too long."
That should change soon. With a dense cluster of projects, Embick is easing out of obscurity, at least in his adopted home city. His primary gig is with the Original Cats, a group including some of Portland's most senior and acclaimed jazz musicians. The collective résumé of the Cats includes stints with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as ties to the city's music heyday along Williams Avenue in the 1940s and '50s, way before the fortysomething Embick's time. Not content to rest on the laurels of his bandmates, Embick has just released a solo album, leads a trio bearing his name and fronts a Latin combo called Ramsey Embick y Los Montunos.
If this seems a daunting list of assignments, it's nothing compared to what Embick has done in the past--or to what he wishes he had done, for that matter.
After studying classical and jazz piano at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, Embick's mentor suggested he move on to New York City. But as he now recalls ruefully, Southern California beckoned instead.
"Some of the things I should have pursued were not pursued," he says. "This guy was going to get me a record deal; I didn't pursue it. I was in this Latin band that was signed. I didn't pursue that. But there were other gigs that offered more money, and that's where I went. I'm a live player at heart, but I worked as a studio musician for the last five years I was there. It was a big mistake."
His regrets notwithstanding, Embick managed to play with some of the most famous musicians in the world throughout much of the 1980s. As music director and keyboard player for the Pointer Sisters, Embick toured the world and contributed to a string of No. 1 songs. "They're fabulous," he says matter-of-factly. "They were very, very supportive of me, and they extracted every ounce of talent I could give them."
In addition to the Pointer Sisters, Embick had a stint with Ray Charles and the Commodores, contributed to an ill-fated comeback album by Milli Vanilli and even worked briefly with the Gloved One himself.
"He's an absolute genius," Embick says of Michael Jackson. "I remember he walked up to me at rehearsal one day and said, 'The bass player goes like this,' and proceeded to sing the entire bass part. I've never had anybody in my face singing something so flawlessly. He was unbelievable."
As far as Jackson's notorious peculiarities go, Embick believes they have as much to do with Jackson's rarified milieu as with the man himself. "With all that money and all those people around him, he's got no one to say no," Embick asserts. "He's got some serious personal failings, and some over-self-consciousness, and when it drives him to do something strange, no one is saying, 'Mike, come on now!'"
A decade removed from his pop-music past, Embick divides his time between jazz and Latin ventures, and much of his music is a hybrid of the two influences. Whereas jazz is based on improvisation within a canon of old standards, Embick sees in polyrhythmic Latin beats a bottomless well of new musical combinations.
"In terms of the standard harmonic improvisation in jazz, it's been done," Embick says. "People are still trying to figure out what Coltrane did--and that happened almost 40 years ago." Much of his own sound, therefore, is based on the application of Latin rhythms to jazz harmonies. "You can't just combine this stuff any old way," he says of Latin influences. "But the deeper you get into it, the more it reveals new ground."
Embick's latest venture is a CD titled simply Solo Piano, which deftly combines his soft, Keith Jarrett-esque touch with a little Latin punch. What's more, this is an album that never would have been made had Embick stayed in La La Land.
"Solo piano performance is looked down upon in Los Angeles as cocktail hack," he says, rolling his eyes. "In Portland, for the most part, whether I'm playing for a museum opening or a gig at the Heathman or whatever, it's treated as art. This is an extremely jazz-friendly town."
While Portland might not be a place to become rich and famous, that suits Embick just fine. "My bread and butter is my ability to play, not to talk with some lawyer," says Embick. "There isn't any money to be made, so all I need to focus on is the music. I just play the stuff that I like."
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