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Interviews

Bill Mays: When Mays Plays, Musicians Listen

By Published: May 17, 2004

And doing this with two other people in a trio means that sometimes absolutely magical things can and do happen, and sometimes it falls on its face. The point is not to care.

O the infinite particulars of modern jazz. Promoters can't sell it. Audiences are hesitant to pay for it. Most players make next to nothing. There're no hits. No stars. Minimal airplay. A distant third on the priority list behind dinner and conversation.

But occasionally there is magic. Life-affirming magic. The most immediate and intimate kind. If you listen close you can feel it along with the musicians as it happens ï" and then it's over.

The magic of jazz improvisation is hard to create and even harder to describe, but suffice it to say that Bill Mays is a piano wizard. Silver-haired and large in stature (imagine John Wayne rooted to the piano bench), Mays was born February 5, 1944, into a musical family in northern California. His first exposure to jazz, at age 16, was a concert by Earl 'Fatha' Hines. "A friend took me to a jazz brunch and Fatha was playing solo piano, Bill remembers. "It was so new to my ears, and it was burning! His rhythmic drive, unusual melodic twists, two-handed independence and use of the whole keyboard thrilled and inspired me.

The following year Mays joined the U.S. Navy band and in '69 moved to Los Angeles to play jazz with that city's finest musicians, including Buddy Collette, Harold Land, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Art Pepper, Bobby Shew, Danny Embrey, Ernie Watts, even Frank Zappa. In '84 Mays transplanted to New York City. "I wanted to broaden my scope, work with some of the people I'd always admired and continue to grow as a writer and player," he explains.

Mays' affiliation with Palmetto Records began in 1999 and coincided with the formation of his current trio with drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind. Tunes from the trio's latest release, Going Home , were featured during the pianist's 2003 Earshot festival appearances at the Triple Door. However, filling in for Wilson and Wind were northwest notables Gary Hobbs and Chuck Deardorfï"an original personnel combination, and one that prompted my initial query.

All About Jazz: During your Earshot festival appearance last November at the Triple Door, you were not at all shy about showing your enthusiasm, shouting your approval after many of the tunes. You seemed to revel in the spontaneity. How is it that three guys who havenït played together before can be so intuitive?

Bill Mays: Besides the fact that we three are using the same "vocabulary" and have all been improvisers for an aggregate of, easily, 80 years, Gary and Chuck both spent time familiarizing themselves with my music, via lead sheets and recordings, and came in totally prepared ï" prepared in the "academic" sense by being totally at home with the "road maps, prepared technically because they are superior players on their instruments, and prepared emotionally in that they both have "big ears," are unafraid to take chances, are always ready to go in any direction, and they both check their egos at the door. The flow of the music, not look-at-what-I-can-do governs the proceedings. How's that for a short answer?!

AAJ: You performed two pieces by pianist Bill Evans, "Very Early and "Your Story. How great of an influence was Mr. Evans on your playing?

BM: Evans' harmonic sense, the way he voiced chords, his deeply lyrical playing, his gorgeous tone at the piano ï" all influenced me greatly. I also, and maybe equally, was deeply influenced, in other not-so-similar ways, by the piano playing of Earl Hines, Hank Jones, Sonny Clark, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Rowles.

AAJ: Classical composers like Chopin and Dvorak figure prominently into your music, especially in your renditions of tunes like "Body and Soul and "Going Home. How often do you listen to classical music? What can the jazz musician learn from the classical musician and vice versa?

BM: I listen to classical music more than any other music; I go through different "periods"ï"right now I'm hung up the Prokofiev piano concertos. We jazz musicians can continue to learn about better pedaling technique, tone production, attention to detail. Of course, though jazz 8th-note phrasing is different than classical, I've realized great benefit to the hands ï" not to mention the ears ï" of playing, especially, the Chopin and Debussy etudes, Ravel, Brahms, Bach inventions and Beethoven sonatas. Classical players often speak of fear of playing anything without the printed notes in front of them. In clinics I've performed, it's always a joy to have them close their eyes and, as I suggest a scene or scenario, have them make notes based solely on their feelings about that scene, on the spur of the moment, with no regard to "form" or "style and presto, in a primitive way, they are "improvising." They could learn a lot from us by continuing to "practice" that in their practice sessions, with a result, I think, of more expression and feeling coming out in their playing of the printed score.

AAJ: Your treatments of standards like "Satin Doll and "So Nice To Come Home To retain elements of the original melody and harmony, but sometimes even these elements are fleeting and hard to recognize, yet compelling as one listens for the thread. Can you describe your approach to the standard song, such as those mentioned?

BM: I always remain true to the composer's written melody. I sometimes, as in "Satin Doll" (An Ellington Affair, Concord Records), heavily rearrange all the other elements. In that case I put it in 5/4 time, chose a "straight 8th-note" instead of a swing feel, and altered the harmonic scheme so it bore no resemblance to Strayhorn's original chords. On the 2nd piece, I pretty much used Cole Porter's original harmoniesï"but what gave this arrangement a real dramatic touch was writing a devilishly hard unison bebop "shout" line for bass and piano, in double-octaves (occurs just before and during the drum solo). I find it refreshing to include two or three of those kinds of things in a 60-minute set of music, to counter-balance the more "straight-ahead" off-the-cuff renditions.

AAJ: Do you think in terms of "outside and "inside jazz? Describe your conception of these terms and the line that separates them.

BM: Simply put, I think of "inside" playing as staying within the harmonic form, within the number of measures in each chorus, and improvising using tones that are fairly consonant and related to the chords underneath them. I think of "outside" ï" for example, my playing on my tune "Fireflies" from Summer Sketches (Palmetto), or on "Out in PA" from the CD of same name ï" as being free from those considerations. I think of it as making "soundscapes" where anything is open. Tempos can change. Feels ï" the kind of beat ï" can change. Tonal centers, if any, can change. And doing this with two other people in a trio means that sometimes absolutely magical things can and do happen, and sometimes it falls on its face. The point is not to care.

AAJ: Are you conscious of quoting songs during your solos?

BM: Most of the time, no. Occasionally, yes.

AAJ: What effect can quoting snippets of melody from other songs have on the musical conversation?

BM: Sometimes it can get it the way if it's done too much, and I'm occasionally guilty. Otherwise, it's just a common device used for decades in jazz ï" Dexter Gordon comes readily to mind ï" and is usually cause for a smile on the faces of the listeners, and other musicians on the bandstand. It also shows a certain playful respect for the tradition and the tunes we're quoting.

AAJ: You were an LA studio guy, and now you live in NYC. How did the move affect your career and your piece of mind?

BM: I mostly did wall-to-wall studio work in LA for 15 years, and played jazz only occasionally. Since the move to NYC, it's exactly the other way around: I travel six months of the year playing jazz, doing jazz clinics, and only occasionally play studio dates in NYC, most recently for TV with Luciano Pavarotti, a Dr. Pepper commercial, and on the movie scores for "Frieda," "S.W.A.T." and the upcoming "The Alamo."

AAJ: What was it like to work with Sarah Vaughn?

BM: A most beautiful 18 months, with Jimmy Cobb drumming and Bob Magnusson on bass!

AAJ: Can you share an anecdote or two?

BM: Jimmy Rowles recommended me for the job. I was instructed to show up at her house at four o'clock for "the audition." She pulled out a huge book of her arrangements and I thought, "Oh man, we're going to be at this for hours." We did about 16 bars and she said, "Okay, you've got the gig. Now let's eat!" and proceeded to make me a beautiful home-cooked meal! She had perfect pitch, and would often start a couple tunes in her book by herself, with me coming in on the second "A." As a joke she would sometimes, on purpose, start a half-step higher or lower than the key the tune was in. When I entered it would sound terrible and she'd turn around with a devilish look in her eyes as I scrambled to recover and get quickly into the "right" new key! I discovered, very quickly, the musical way to protect myself: I would enter, not with a whole chord, but just one note. Immediately I would hear that that note was one of the "chord tones" or a half-step away and in the split second make the necessary adjustment!

AAJ: Impressions of Seattle jazz, past and present?

BM: I have many fond memories of Seattle, and its musicians, in days past. First, I worked at the Pioneer Square club, Parnell's, in early 80s, with guitarist Howard Roberts, with a sweetheart of an electric bassist named Dan Dean, and a very talented drummer/percussionist, Tom Collier. I have had many happy hours playing with multi-instrumentalist Jay Thomas, in clubs and the recording studio. More recently, I had the pleasure of recording with Seattle vocalist Dina Blade on her last two CDs, and I just completed a new CD with singer/bassist Laura Welland. I'm much impressed with the things Cornish is doing, and Chuck Deardorf's work there. Chuck is also one of my all-time favorite bassists. I've had some great times playing music with drummer Dean Hodges. The VERY first time I played Seattle was with Sarah Vaughan, and the entire Duke Ellington Orchestra, way back in 1972. What a thrill!



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