Whether he’s playing a sold-out rap show or setting up his beloved red Nord keyboard in the back of a supper club to perform a set of improvised music, there is something distinctive and incomparable about the ubiquitous pianist deVon Gray.
Chances are you’ve seen Gray (who also goes by dVRG) on stage with Heiruspecs, Brother Ali, Chastity Brown, or And the Professors, and you’ve also probably unknowingly heard him on albums by everyone from the Cloak Ox to Caroline Smith to MaLLy, Big Cats, Lazerbeak, and Carnage. Over the course of the last year, especially, it seems like the demand for Gray’s accompaniments and arrangements has risen dramatically—but if you ask him, it’s all just part of a slow, methodical progression toward realizing his ambitious creative goals.
“I don’t know where projects come from,” he says, shrugging. “So far, one creates the other. But it’s definitely a trickle, not a stream or a flow.”
It says something about Gray’s personality that even this piece took half of a year to come together. For our first interview last fall, he welcomed me into his home to play records before heading out on a tour of Europe with Chastity Brown; when the time was right, he called me up again to come down to Barbette this spring for an interview over champagne and a night of improvisation with the guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker. Everything he does is intentional, evenly paced, and calm, and he approaches his art with equal parts curiosity and philosophical reflection.
“I’m trying to be less pigeonholed all the time,” he says, speaking softly and thoughtfully. “With my playing, for a long time I think people thought I could only do the one thing. Heiruspecs has a strict structure where there’s not improvising, but I knew that I could. I still get that: ‘I didn’t know you played jazz!’ I don’t, but I like to do more than play this one four-bar thing.”
Though he is modest about his abilities, Gray is so well-versed so many different genres and styles that the word “eclectic” doesn’t quite seem to cover his style.
“I have so much style that I have no style,” he deadpans, the slightest trace of a smirk sneaking onto his face. “I’ve always been a jack-of-all-trades. I always wanted to do everything. I think that’s why I drifted toward orchestral music, and classical music, because I thought that there was such a rich palette of possibility with the music.”
For Gray, who started studying the piano at 5 and was already playing with a church choir at 8, the lines between classical, gospel, rock, and pop music began blurring at an early age. (“I had teachers saying, ‘It’s important to read’ and teachers saying, ‘It’s important to listen,’ so I got the best of both worlds,” he says.) And though Gray grew up in St. Paul in the same neighborhoods as his Heiruspecs bandmates, he was the only one in the band who didn’t go to Central High School, instead traveling to Golden Valley to study music at the Perpich Center for Arts Education and then moving out east to hone his craft at the New England Conservatory.
“[The conservatory was] right around the corner from Berklee and Boston Conservatory. Even there, there’s great jazz musicians, great classical musicians, great folk musicians, great film scorers all in one little pot,” he says. “I miss that competition element of it sometimes. I feel like there’s not enough people in town pushing each other, pushing ourselves. You get to a certain level and then people stop. You keep doing the thing you know how to do, but no one’s kicking back. I guess that happens with everything; no one’s kicking back ideas to Beyonce, like, ‘You know what? It could be better.’ There is none of that. That’s what I really want to be I guess: a filter. To help people achieve the greatest quality product they can achieve.”
For all of his schooling and practice, Gray says that one of his favorite things to do is start from scratch and pull a melody out of thin air at one of his improvised gigs. “I try my best to forget everything I know about music before a gig. Otherwise it gets in your way,” he says. “It has to be intuitive. It has to be second nature. You should be able to make music without thinking about it. You can only do that with a certain type of musician—well, you can do it with any musician, but the results will be less pleasing to the ear.”
I ask him what makes for a good improvisational partner, and he settles back into the thought like a pillow. “Someone that listens, and someone that is equal parts alchemist and inventor; they want to try new things, test new flavors. What happens if I play a chord like this? I’ve never done this before. And then you’re able to also respond and react quickly. They have good instincts.”
Even with more structured rock and pop music, Gray says that musicians call on him to bring that sense of openness and experimentation to their sound. “I get to sit in with the Cloak Ox and see how they work, and it seems to be the same sort of structure: We know how the songs go, but within that we can f*** it up if we want to,” he says. “And we will. Inevitably, we will. Rehearsals are for our amusement, mostly, to see how we can make each other smile and crack up. And then [Cloak Ox frontman Andrew] Broder will say, ‘Alright, we’re back.’”
For his gigs at Barbette—including the one coming up this Wednesday night, which is billed as “dVRG Redefined”—pretty much anything goes. Gray will play a sultry, soulful organ part one minute and cop a Kanye West beat the next; he’ll build up and invert an idea like a jazz musician but then abandon it to pursue a more straightforward pop melody, always searching for that perfect tone and perfect incantation. If there is one thing that defines Gray’s playing, it’s his ability to create a vibe, and often it’s so rich and thick that you can practically see the smoke rising off of his keys.
“We’re in a pangenre time,” he says, standing up and getting ready to move to his keyboard for another set. “That was a joke I was making today: I don’t know what genre I’ll be playing tonight because it’s all of the genres. It’s everything that I like and everything that influences me. There’s no borders, no boundaries. We’re in mixtape country. Everything is fair game. Sometimes I like to play the way a DJ would play. What does that mean? I’m trying to find out.”