Jef Ramsey plays a little bit of everything from jazz standards and pop songs to bluegrass and Texas swing, so a Ramsey performance is likely to feature an eclectic mix of honest and sincere music.
Asked whether he's ever considered committing himself professionally to just one genre, he says that not being able to play all the different types of songs he loves would be "like not having enough oxygen to breathe."
The 53-year-old mandolin and guitar player moved to Southern Oregon three years ago, after decades of playing in bands around Seattle and Olympia, Wash.
Moving meant entering into an entirely new musical community, but Ramsey has embraced the challenge, cultivating collaborators and musical friendships as varied as the wide-ranging songs in his repertoire.
He plays an equally wide-ranging variety of gigs. In addition to establishing himself as a regular solo performer on the local winery circuit, Ramsey has found a home in Southern Oregon as a sideman on mandolin and guitar. He also continues to pursue a longtime love of playing music in retirement centers. His set lists for these shows typically draw heavily from "The Great American Songbook" — the canon of 20th-century American pop music that jazz players call "standards."
Ramsey says he's been able to gauge his progress at playing the standards over the years by the audience response he gets in the retirement centers. When he first started, he says, the seniors would give him credit for knowing the tunes, but he could tell there was something missing. As his skill as an interpreter of the old tunes has grown, so too has the warmth of the audiences increased.
When he plays solo gigs at wineries and nightspots around the region, Ramsey selects tunes from the full range of his musical interests. He is as apt to play something from Marvin Gaye or Joni Mitchell as he is to pull out a tune by Dizzy Gillespie or Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. He may play meticulously arranged fiddle tunes or jazz compositions on the mandolin — or he may improvise.
One of the great benefits of playing a wide variety of styles of music is that, over time, they begin to inform one another. Learning a new style of music helps a player to better understand the stuff he was already playing by seeing it from a different perspective. Ramsey's focus in recent years has been on allowing his musical instincts to take the lead over his musical intellect — to think less about how he wants to play while he's playing.
"Music is a lot more than technique," he says. "What's helped me recently is getting over the idea that I have to think about what I'm playing. I've started trusting my body to play the music. "… I realized I didn't have to make a plan."
The approach is particularly helpful in his role as a sideman when he sits in with performers such as songwriter Jen Ambrose, with whom he'll play at 5 p.m. Friday, April 12, at Agate Ridge Vineyards, 1098 Nick Young Road, Eagle Point.
Sitting in with other performers is a challenge, because "you're at the mercy of their chord changes," says Ramsey. "As a sideman, I fly by the seat of my pants."
And that, ultimately, is probably what it all comes down to. Musical performance is a creative act executed in real time. The notes come faster than a player's mind can think of them, and they fade almost instantly into an echo in the audience's ears.
When someone such as Jef Ramsey commits his life to music, he commits himself to a lifetime of musical relationships and interactions. He trusts in some higher musical power to guide him through the challenge and the mystery of it all.
Jef Ramsey also will perform at 5 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at 2 Hawk Winery, 2335 N. Phoenix Road, Medford.
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.