Tom Ranier: He Does it “This Way”

Pianist and multi- reedist Tom Ranier has added yet more instruments to his arsenal – a Leica, a Sony, and a Nikon, using both digital and film formats. Along with his decades-long career of composing, playing, and arranging scores for television and film, the Chicago native has begun turning his lens on the cities he visits on tour, dramatically presenting the images in slideshows, backed with his signature compositions.

Enhancing visuals with music has been Ranier’s life’s work. Since 1985, his estimable credits have included the TV series “Moonlighting,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Star Trek: Enterprise,” and films such as “Forrest Gump,” “Ted,” and “Frozen.” In addition, he has been a frequent member of the Academy Awards orchestra, and played sythesizers for Barbra Streisand’s Millennium Concert tour in 1999-2000. More recently, from 2017 to 2019, Ranier toured with Tony Bennett as pianist and musical director. 

Ranier has been a full-time member of the orchestra for “The Simpsons” since 2011. From 2005 to 2013, he was a keyboardist and arranger for “Dancing with the Stars.” Since 2015, Ranier has worked with Seth McFarlane on his animated series, “Family Guy” and “American Dad!,” as well as McFarlane’s sci-fi series, “The Orville.” Ranier also has contributed to McFarlane’s vocal jazz and swing albums, on piano and as arranger.

Throughout his studio career, Ranier has performed and recorded jazz. His own albums include “Ranier” (1976, Warner Bros.); “Blue in Green” (with Glenn Cashman, Primrose Lane, 2005); and “Bright Idea,” (with the Tom Ranier-Glenn Cashman Sextet, 2006, Primrose Lane). Ranier’s 1997 Contemporary Records release, “In the Still of the Night,” was remastered for its 20th anniversary in 2017. Ranier was part of the trio 3prime, featuring Peter Donald on drums and Abraham Laboriel on bass. Their album, “Live at Rocco’s,” was released in 2001 by Fuzzy Music. In 2020, Ranier self-released “This Way,” featuring mainly his own compositions, with orchestrations for piano, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and woodwinds.

MLS recently chatted with Ranier on the music that inspired him growing up – including seeing the greats at Disneyland when it was a destination for jazz; the art of combining the visual with the aural; and an optimistic look at the future of scoring for TV and film.

You’ve discussed the influence of big bands like Benny Goodman’s, on your own work. What about it was inspiring to you?

It’s kind of hard to define. My mom and dad had a lot of 78 records of Benny. When I was really young, before I was studying piano, we used to listen to those, as well as Artie Shaw and Buddy DiFranco. My dad was a musician, he played the clarinet and saxophone.

There was something about it – I felt some kind of a connection with it. I often go back to that music even now and I get the same kind of thrills when I hear it. I think the way [Goodman] played, the sound that he got on the instrument and the feeling of that music was so happy and just compelling in a way that’s sort of hard to verbalize. It kind of spoke to me and it still does.

Fast forward to your work now with Seth McFarlane, who loves a full, big band sound. 

He’s a brilliant guy in so many ways, and he’s very much supportive of having musicians play on his TV shows, big groups, which unfortunately, is not the trend anymore. He’s not the only one, but he believes that music is a big part of all of his work. So, his shows have orchestras, and his movies have even bigger orchestras. He’s really into music, all kinds of music, so it’s been wonderful to work with him.

[Seth] prefers the acoustic approach, the old analog approach, real people making music together as opposed to using mostly synthesizers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – they’re two different things. They intersect too, because a lot of the scores that primarily use synthesizers will have live players too, on other shows.

How does music drive the story in animated features, making that two-dimensional world more 3-D in a way, going back, for example, to “Merrie Melodies,” or Bugs Bunny conducting a symphony?

I think it’s an extension of all the Warner Bros. stuff that you just mentioned. It runs the gamut from all the emotions they’re trying to portray, whether it’s humor, pathos, or whatever. The music enhances that, and it deepens those feelings, especially if it’s written well.

All the people that write for Seth are wonderful composers. It’s amazing because the depth of emotion in that music is the same as if it were a film with real live people. Conceptually, it’s the same – the music is there to support, to enhance. It becomes, in that situation, a real integral part… whether it’s animated or a [live action] movie. He views it as being that important.

What are some of the main differences or similiarities between recording for TV and film and playing live?

“Dancing with the Stars” was pretty unique. We were performing these minute-and-a-half, minute-and-45 length songs, live. We only had a chance to run them two times – once in the morning and once with the dancers after lunch, and then we were on the air. That was a very exciting way, actually, to make music. That show encompassed a wide range of styles. We were called upon to make this variety of music almost instantaneously, so there was a certain amount of pressure. It was really a challenge, [but] really enjoyable and fun to do that.

In answer to your question though, they’re different disciplines. For example, if you’re doing a a movie score or a score for television, [they] take more time. The budgets are bigger, and the directors in my experience anyway, will make a lot of changes on the spot, and so the unfolding and performing of that music takes a little bit more time. Television goes a little faster – the budgets are smaller. 

Having said all that, they are similar in the fact that you’re called upon as a sideman, as a musician, in those cases. They put the music in front of you and basically, the way it works is, you have to be pretty much perfect every time. A lot of times they’ll do multiple takes, particularly in movies, because as I said, sometimes they change things. They might do one cue 20 or 30 times. So, the idea that you have to be performing at the highest level every take is discipline – it’s very difficult. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a lot of stress at the same time. 

Over and above all of that, we are very fortunate, we who do this for a living are very, very fortunate to be making a living – a good living too – by playing our instruments and playing music. That’s something that, in the whole world, there’s very few people who do that, particularly in this framework.

Would you say that jazz musicians are chosen for this work because of the high skill levels needed, along with the ability to improvise?

There is definitely a number of jazz musicians who do this kind of work, but the majority of the musicians are not necessarily jazz musicians, and they’re not necessarily improvisors. They are very, very accomplished players on their instruments.

The second part of the question – there’s not a lot of chance to improvise, but that depends on the instrument you play. For example, if you’re a string player, for the most part, string players are called to play what’s on the page. But if you’re a rhythm section player – a pianist, guitarist, bassist, drummer – a lot of times you are asked to be creative and to enhance your part, perhaps change your part. They might ask you for your own input. Sometimes, they even hire people because they do that.

For example, the pianist Mike Lang, who is just one of the great musicians of all time, a lot of times will be called to be Mike Lang and to improvise and to inject his own interpretation. He’s always putting a little bit of himself [in the music]. Sometimes, he’ll be called to play the piano part as written, and of course, he does that brilliantly too. 

Gary Foster, the woodwind player, a lot of the time will be called to play with the woodwind section. A magnificent woodwind player, [he] plays the flute, clarinet, saxophones. And then, maybe on that same date, whether it’s TV or film, there might be a solo [or] an ad-libbed solo, which is chord changes. There might be a solo that’s written out but needs some interpretive phrasing. 

“In the Heat of the Night,” the movie, [was] very much a Ronnie Lang solo vehicle, in his style of alto playing. The great trumpet player, Uan Rasey, who played the trumpet solos for “Chinatown,” with Jack Nicholson… that was [composed by] Jerry Goldsmith, and I believe he wrote with Uan Rasey in mind, that style of trumpet playing that was so personal. So, sometimes they cast people according to the styles that they play, [when] they want a certain sound.

Who makes those decisions? 

It can be the composer. It could be the director of the movie or the project, and in some cases, it’s the contractor who hires the musicians, who might have a suggestion and say, “I think Gary Foster is the guy you want.” If they don’t necessarily know, [the contractor] can guide them to certain people.

How did you get your start in the studios?

I’ve been lucky. I’ve been making my living, pretty much since I was about 16 years old, playing. Not in the studios when I started out of course, but I was playing a lot of live gigs. I went on the road and after I was on the road for a while, I came back to L.A. and I really wanted to stay home.

I started meeting the other musicians… I just spoke about Mike Lang, he was one of the first pianists and keyboard players that I met. And as luck would have it, he sent me on a recording session for a TV special, kind of at the last moment, I think he couldn’t make it. 

I think I did a pretty passable job, and the arranger liked me and the contractor liked me, and they started hiring me. I remember thinking if I could just do one studio date a month, I’d be really thrilled. That eventually happened, and then it became a little bit more. It took a long time. I was in my 30s already. I didn’t start really young [in the studios] like some guys and some women do. 

When you start out, I think it’s a little like being an athlete, because you’re only as good as the last job that you played. You have to hit a home run pretty much every time you get called. So, it’s very, very fulfilling, and it’s stressful at the same time because there’s that kind of pressure. The people that get you the jobs are the other musicians, especially at first [when] somebody can’t make [a job], like in my case, and it’s happened with me recommending other people.

And there’s other things. You have to be on time. You have to have a good attitude – it really helps. People like to be around people who are smiling and have a good attitude and really take care of business and show up and are pleasant and easy to deal with. That’s all part of it too.

The reason I mention that is because there’s tons of good players, there’s tons of good musicians. First of all, not everybody, gets the chance to do this kind of work. But some people get the chance, and it doesn’t connect somehow. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have such a good attitude, or they might freeze up when the red light goes on, that stressful moment when you really have to perform. Not everybody has the temperament to do it, and that doesn’t mean anything except that it’s not the right casting for them. They can be wonderful musicians, but there’s a certain combination of things you have to have. 

What was it like seeing concerts at Disneyland  – and eventually, being part of the scene – when it was a local destination for jazz lovers?

That all started when I was a kid. We lived close to Disneyland, we were three miles away, so we used to go there when the big bands would come out, which was every summer. They would do a week apiece. My parents, being musicians, loved it too, and they would take me and I got to hear just about everybody: Duke Ellington, Harry James, Benny Goodman, Count Basie a lot…You name them, we got to hear them in person. That was really a great experience.

I remember they had a trio of clarinet, banjo, and bass, over in the New Orleans [Square]. The clarinet player was a wonderful player named Jack McVeigh. I can’t remember the other two guys’ names, but Jack McVeigh was around L.A. [during] the birth of bebop, he was a wonderful, wonderful player. They also had a band led by Teddy Buckner, a wonderful cornetist. And then every Memorial Day, they would have a jazz weekend and they would have all these groups would come out, so I heard a lot of that too.

I actually had my own band out there one year, which was a lot of fun for two days. So, they always had a lot of music, besides the marching band and the different groups that played in the different lands. They always supported the jazz groups to the extent that they could.

With all the technology available right now, how easy – or difficult – was it to release an album in the middle of a pandemic?

I released my own record, “This Way,” around the time the pandemic started. I wouldn’t say it’s a piece of cake. I had recorded it over a very, very long period of time, and about a year before the the pandemic, I finally finished it. There was a lot of overdubbing that happened. But I think the question speaks to the state of affairs that we’re in right now.

In some ways, it is easier to get your music out there via the internet streaming services, and in some ways, it’s even more difficult. It’s not like there are no more record labels. There are, but the CD as we know it, is going out of fashion.

In terms of the marketing of the music, in terms of getting it out there to sell it, it’s still very difficult. In some ways, I think it’s more difficult than ever. You’re getting it out there, but then, what do you do with it? Can you get airplay, for example? 

I hired a publicist, because it’s been a long time since I recorded my own music, since 1997 – that was my last CD. I hired a publicist for eight weeks. He was really good [and] got it to a lot of radio stations. Every week, he’d give me a list of radio stations that would play it, some that hadn’t heard it yet, and some that wouldn’t play it.

It was really an eye-opener and when eight weeks was over he said, “Now, you have to do another [album], because now, at least they know who you are, and so your chances of getting airplay are better.”

It used to be that even if you didn’t have a record deal and you were playing live, you could sell your CDs at the gig. Now, that’s even harder because people don’t usually buy CDs anymore. So, you have to find your way through all this. I haven’t come up with a lot of solutions, it’s a rough go.

You mentioned playing concerts more recently – how has that been, as far as venue size? And how have the audiences been?

Small venues, outside or in tents, where everyone is pretty far away from each other. I’m thinking generally, about 150 to 200 people. And their appetite for it is fantastic – they’ve been wonderful audiences, really receptive – maybe even more receptive than I remember before the pandemic. They’re really starved for this, and there’s nothing like the real thing.

What inspired your new projects in photography?

My dad was a musician in Chicago and when we were still there, he got interested in photography and eventually shifted his career to being a photographer. He was self-taught and eventually became head of photography at the old Rockwell [International] in Downey, which was [previously] North American Aviation, working with the Apollo [project] around the time they went to the moon. As a matter of fact, he taught the astronauts how to use the Hasselblad when they went up there.

And then I got interested in it and he helped me. We built a darkroom – actually, he built it and I helped him – in my house, which was really great. I grew up with [photography], because even in Chicago, we had a darkroom and I would watch him as a kid, I would watch him make prints. 

The last few years [when] I was on the road with Tony Bennett for about two years, we’d go to different cities. We spent a lot of time in New York. So, I got even more into it and would spend my off days photographing and just had a ball. I just completed my first slide show, where I scored it with music and put it on YouTube.

I want to do some more of those. It’s a project that is unlimited, conceptually. You can write any style of music, or even within one slide show change styles and be real creative, and marry that to the pictures [to] tell a story that way. That’s the latest thing I’m excited about.

You taught at UCLA for nine years – what was your experience as an educator, teaching about a craft that comes so much from within a person?

It was really interesting in a lot of ways. I learned so much because when you try to teach something, that’s when you learn how much you know and how much you need to know, and you learn about it again. That aspect was wonderful.

I had a lot of good students. I was teaching jazz harmony and theory and jazz piano. Jazz is a very challenging subject. There’s lots of schools of thought on how to go about it. There are some people who say ultimately, it can’t be taught. But it was really fulfilling, and it was a challenge.

The best part of it probably was to try to bring creativity or the sense of creativity to the students – to try to bring that out of them. And once they experience that, there were a lot of really neat, magic moments where you can see a lightbulb coming on and they would become really excited and passionate. I think that was probably the greatest part of it.

How did the shift to the use of more synthesizers by a single composer/musician in scoring TV and film music impact the industry and the opportunities for studio musicians? 

It’s a difficult question to answer. I would say at this point, my experience has been that most composers have synthesizer studios, and so they would do mainly two things. They will do what we call mock-ups, or they have an assistant that does mock-ups of their scores, with synthesizers.

The second thing they do is integrate those synthesizer sounds or effects into their acoustic score. For example, Alan Silvestri, a wonderful composer, will do mock-ups of his scores and he will keep certain synth effects and when he goes into the studio to use real players, he will bring those sessions with him and integrate those synth sounds. 

As far as the business part of it, the reality back then is that there was a ton of work for studio musicians, particularly in Los Angeles, also, in New York. Nashville, there’s always been primarily record dates. Houston had a big jingle industry, Chicago did for a long time. But around 1980, there was a strike by the musicians and what happened was the clients started taking their scores overseas. 

So, in an effort to continue to make their music during the strike, [clients] found out a couple of things. They found out basically, they could do that, because before that, it was the assumption that only people in New York and L.A. could play this kind of music and do it really well. [Clients] found out that’s not true. This is very international now, and as we speak, it’s more international than it’s ever been. You can go to Budapest or Prague… certainly at first, they went to London a lot – and to other countries and they can get their scores done.

That’s changed the economics because a lot of these situations overseas, if not, or just about all of them, are not usually controlled. [Clients] can get their product cheaper, they don’t have to pay a residual as far as reuse, which here in L.A. and in the United States, we get. That shifted the balance of how much work there is. 

Another thing that shifted the balance of how much work [there is] – especially at first – was the use of synthesizers replacing [musicians]. For example, at first, when synthesizers started becoming popular, they would replace string sections. Not always very well, but in the context of what you heard on the screen they were getting away with it for a long time, so a lot of people were being put out of work.

The amount of value we place on music, here and abroad, and especially in the eyes of producers and people who create these projects, has changed, not always for the better. This is what also makes working for Seth McFarlane such a treasure, because he loves having good players, real players.

It’s a complex situation among us musicians. I certainly would never want to generalize and pretend I’m speaking for everybody, but I don’t know that a lot of us even understand completely. It’s hard to get your head around what’s transpired in this period of time and where we are right now. And then, you add the pandemic into that. The studios are opening up now in Los Angeles and there’s more and more work. So, we’ll just see how it goes.

Where do you think the future of music for TV and film is headed?

I watched an interesting interview a couple of weeks ago with Tommy Newsom, who used to co-lead “The Tonight Show” band with Doc Severinsen. He played the saxophone and did a lot of the arrangements. I think the interview was done in the early 1990s. He made a really good point, because they asked him about the proliferation of synthesizers in television music.

He said, “We used to do tons of record dates in New York, and gradually that stuff started to go away, and the jingles started using synthesizers.” So, the interviewer is asking him about all this, and [Tommy] said, “You know, the one thing you have to remember… is that everything changes, and everything continues to change. So, who knows? There might be another revival of using real players on record dates.” 

When “Dancing with the Stars” started in 2005, they hired Harold Wheeler to be the music director and said, “We need 18 musicians who can play every style of music, live on TV.” We did the pilot and we played ten songs, and were all saying to ourselves, “There’s no way this is going to be successful. Who does this anymore?” And sure enough, that show took off.

I think it’s pretty tough to predict, but I think that … everything is on the table because there are a couple of things that are consistent. Number one, like Tommy Newsom was saying in that interview: everything keeps changing, everything is fluid. Number two is, anything is possible. And number three is, TV and film tend to be by nature, very trendy, so whatever trend is happening will be reflected in that. Now there’s more of a trend, I think it’s fair to say, in the last, I don’t know how many years, of real acoustic musicians, they want real acoustic orchestras. So that’s a good thing. 

I think there’s every reason to be optimistic about the future of all of the music, all the styles and all the players, playing, and producing of the music. If I had to make a prediction, I would predict that it continues in all these interesting directions that it’s taken. As far as the economic constraints on it, that’s pretty hard to say. There’s been, unfortunately, a lot of downsizing and scaling back. There’s been, as I said before, kind of a change in the way we view the importance of music in a lot of different situations.

It’s a privilege, incidentally, to be able to do your own music. You have to be able to afford to get it out there somehow. But the main thing is to do it, and to keep doing it. You never know who’s going to hear it, now or in five or ten years from now. If it’s something you really believe in, and you feel that you’ve been called to do that, to me, that’s really the most important thing.

However, having said all that, music is a great gift. I think it’s a great communicator and it’s very, very necessary. Unfortunately, we’ve seen it being cut back in the educational world a lot, but there’s no reason that can’t turn around and be reversed. And I think as people realize the importance and the value of it, that can happen.

It’s a privilege to be able to make music. My dad used to say – he had a lot of wisdom – and he used to say, it’s a luxury to make your living at it. And it really is, for those of us who are able to do this. I’m very, very grateful and want to keep doing this as much as I can.

As a musician, the only thing you really have any control of is how good you do your work, what you produce. Not to be too existential here or philosophical – that’s what you have and that’s what you give to the world. You do your best with that, and I believe it comes back, sometimes in forms you don’t know. 

Sometimes, it’s ten years later and someone says, “You know, I heard something you wrote,” or, “I heard something you played on.” And you’ve touched somebody. That’s what it’s all about – it’s communicating. 

Self-portrait by Tom Ranier

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