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Upon earning his degree in Music Composition from Cal State Fullerton, Tom Ranier found himself at the proverbial fork in the road with a major creative decision to make. The classically trained pianist, who’s also a skilled clarinetist and saxophonist, could follow his greatest passion and immerse himself in the pursuit of a full-time jazz career. Or he could embark on the more practical route and pursue studio work in film and television, playing in the service of major artists.Choosing the latter, the Chicago-born, SoCal-bred Ranier has amassed hundreds of credits. He toured with Helen Reddy in the late ’70s; recorded sessions with everyone from Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow to Natalie Cole, Christina Aguilera and Placido Domingo; and played on scores for legendary film composers Bill Conti, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Elmer Bernstein and Alan Silvestri. (That’s Ranier’s piano on the iconic “Feather Theme” from Forrest Gump.) On the small screen, he was a player and arranger in Harold Wheeler’s Dancing With the Stars ensemble and has been part of the orchestra for The Simpsons for nearly a decade. Ranier’s also a longtime awards season regular, taking part in numerous ensembles over the years for the Grammys, Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes. And, starting in 2017, he began touring with Tony Bennett.
Whatever style he’s contracted to play at any given moment — pop, swing, electronic, a Mozart sonata — Ranier’s love of jazz always filled his time away from the grind of being a celebrated hired gun. In 1975, just as he began exploring the possibilities of being a studio cat, he recorded his debut album, Ranier, with trombonist Frank Rosolino, which he followed four years later with Night Music. He established his rep as a jazz pianist with vibes player Dave Pike, recorded with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown, and co-led a band with bassist John Heard and drummer Sherman Ferguson. Testament to his whirlwind day job schedule, Ranier’s solo releases have been — to put it kindly — sporadic. Nearly a decade elapsed between In The Still of the Night (1997) and his recordings with saxophonist Glenn Cashman, Blue in Green (2005) and Bright Idea (2006). He did find time in 2001 to record a live trio album, 3Prime, with Abraham Laboriel and Peter Donald. The pianist, 71, started composing the music for his latest project, This Way, 10 years ago. It includes several tunes inspired by or originally recorded by The Brecker Brothers and a nod to his drummer and longtime Dancing With the Stars bandmate Ralph Humphrey (“Yes Kloose”). His quartet also includes bassist Trey Henry and guitarist Thom Rotella. Aside from his compositional and interpretive prowess, Ranier also showcases his talents on woodwinds, most impressively on the Jobim tune “Desafinado,” which is performed in 7/4 and features soli for four clarinets and bass clarinet. “Every recording is a snapshot of where the artist is right at that moment,” says Ranier, who is also, like his father, an accomplished photographer specializing in architecture, portraiture and landscapes. “This Way is a culmination of all of my experiences and musical influences over the last 15 years, since my previous albums. Working on film and TV scores, everything going at lightning speed, you’ve got to sight read really well, do 10 to 15 takes, with no room for error and master all styles. When I do my own music, it’s a whole different world, having complete control over the composing, arranging and presentation. If it crosses genres, so what? It’s my baby. Though based of course in jazz, there’s always been a complete range of expression on my projects.”Ranier believes that many of his like-minded peers in the studio pool pursue jazz in their down time because it presents a challenge that can’t be found within the parameters of a large ensemble or orchestra. “People often ask jazz musicians who make their living amassing so-called glamorous Hollywood résumés why we spend so much of our spare time working meticulously on our own works,” he says. “All I can say is that something serendipitous happens in jazz that doesn’t happen in other kinds of music. It’s a joy that is just so unique and intense and hooks you right into it. “Jazz musicians have to take all those inspirations — in my case, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker and Buddy DeFranco — and come up with their own language,” Ranier adds. “Becoming a true original is an incredible and difficult feat. In studio work, you’re striving to be the best craftsman you can be. Sure, there are times when you have the chance to inject your own creativity, but most of the time, you’re executing the composer or bandleader’s vision, playing from the printed page and bringing that off the best you can.” The rightness of Ranier’s choice to become a studio musician was confirmed by fortuitous events. Tired of traveling after multiple tours with Reddy, he drove from his home in Orange County to hang out in Los Angeles with his friend and fellow pianist Mike Lang, already one of the busiest musicians on that scene. Ranier liked the world Lang introduced him to, and six months later, Lang recommended him to play with Reddy on a TV special. The arranger on that date was Billy Byers, also a notable jazz trombonist, who liked Ranier’s playing and told the contractor about him. That first gig led to another, a subsequent two or three dates a month spawned many more, and soon the pianist had enough on his plate to make a living. This was not long after one of the musician’s union’s biggest strikes, in 1980, and there was, as Ranier says, “tons of work available. I became a popular sub for guys who were so busy they couldn’t take certain dates.” After four and a half decades in the business, Ranier still practices piano and sight reading every day, ensuring that he’s sharp for the next gig, whether it’s at a Tinseltown studio or jazz session or club. “Back when I used to teach, I would tell my students there is no limit to what you can accomplish in music and no end to your growth as a musician if you have the right frame of mind,” he says. “When legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals was 90, he was asked why he still practiced. He said, ‘Because I’m making progress.’ That progress, that discipline, is essential because I never know what’s going to be put in front of me. I feel very blessed I’ve been able to make my living and experience so much of my life through music, which I’ve always considered my passion as well as my hobby.” Now Playing
Paul Brown, Ones Upon a Time (Woodward Avenue)Helming No. 1 radio hits for himself and other urban jazz stars for three decades, blues-flavored guitarist Paul Brown has helped forge the path for the genre’s soulful aesthetic. His cleverly titled new album puts a unique spin on the best-of concept, as he reworks hits he originally produced for artists such as Norman Brown, Boney James, Bob James, Rick Braun, Larry Carlton and George Benson. A cadre of top smooth jazzers, including Richard Elliot, Euge Groove, DW3, Jeff Ryan and Darren Rahn, assists the composer-producer in exploring fresh terrain for these familiar gems.