Pianist Bill Mays, now in his early sixties, is proof positive that aging needn't necessarily imply either slowing down or settling into a comfort zone. He has been an active collaborator with artists like Bud Shank (with whom he performed at this year's Ottawa International Jazz Festival
), Shirley Horn, and Gerry Mulligan, but he's also established a parallel career as a session player on film soundtracks, including Being John Malkovich
, and Rocky
Mays has always been consideredand with some justificationas something of an in-the-center disciple of the Bill Evans school. But within the mainstream, he's a bold improviser with a relaxed attitude that makes anything possible and surprise the norm. He has a broad stylistic reach and he's unafraid to go places where most mainstream pianists won't. He's also comfortable with both the inside and outside of his instrument, as likely to pluck, mute, and strum the strings as he is to play the keys.
Nowhere is this more evident than on his latest release, Live at Jazz Standard, featuring his regular trio of the past six years with drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind. Surrounding himself with younger players, Mays is able to take a worn chestnut like "Willow Weep for Me and reinvent it as a blues-cum-gospel-cum-rock piece where limitation is simply not in the vocabulary.
In person, Mays comes across as lighthearted and fun-loving; and with Wilson he's got an equally joyous and engaged partner. Wilson has accrued a rich discography and a growing reputation for flexibility, including his supporting performance for the underappreciated but nevertheless iconic saxophonist Dewey Redman and guitarist Pat Metheny in Montreal this summer, and he brings a wealth of ideas to any table. But most importantly, whether it's the bluesy swing of Ornette Coleman's "When Will the Blues Leave, the gentle balladry of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile, or Mays' own altogether darker and impressionistic "Euterpe, his rhythmic and melodic instincts are sharp and always on point.
Wind's body of work may be smaller, but he's equally openminded. A nimble soloist on Mays' lithely swinging version of Rodgers and Hart's "Have You Met Miss Jones, he also possesses a rich arco tone that sets the tone for the graceful ballad "How are Things in Glocca Mora?
Mays may choose material by a long-time favourite like Duke Ellington ("Squeeze Me ) or liberally allude to a variety of Thelonious Monk compositions before settling into a quirky rendition of "Let's Call This, but as much as Live at Jazz Standard is an easygoing and approachable programme, it's also no museum piece. Mays' wealth of experienceeven as he has been overlooked by the larger jazz-going public as a solo artistmeans that while he is filled with reverence, he is always more than a stylistic imitator. It would be interesting to see his record collection, but a pretty good suspicion is that his listening habits mirror those of his surprisingly unprejudiced playing.
Visit Bill Mays on the web.
Personnel: Bill Mays: piano; Matt Wilson: drums; Martin Wind: bass.