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A Fireside Chat With Bill Mays

By Published: October 7, 2003

So when I am working with a singer, it is an attitude. You have to know out front that you are backing somebody. It is not your gig. Jimmy Rowles was a good accompanist and he used to say that the essence of being a good accompanist is when you think of idea, play half of it. Stay out of the way. Voice your chords appropriately to the situation.

FJ: Why did you leave our fair city for the Big Apple?

BM: Well, it was a variety of factors. I really became tired of... because I was working in the studios five or six days a week, all day, and I just got tired of doing that constantly and not playing enough improvised music. I also went through a divorce and wanted a change of scenery emotionally.

A lot of factors came together and a lot of the people who I loved, the musicians, were in New York. I knew I was never going to get a chance to play with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra if I lived in LA. When I came back East, I got on the sub list and I worked a lot with that band. I knew I was probably never going to play with Al Cohn or Bob Brookmeyer unless I moved back here.

It was interesting. Gerry Mulligan and I met in April of ’84. I had been a sideman on a lot of Barry Manilow’s LPs. Barry was with Arista Records and he had a chance to do a record called Paradise Café and in his words, it was his jazz album. He loved jazz. He loved jazz musicians and he always wanted to do this record. He got a hold of a lot of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics that had no music written to them and with the permission of Mercer’s wife and estate, he wrote music to several of Mercer’s lyrics and that became the material to Paradise Café.

And he hired his favorite musicians. He hired Shelly Manne, George Duvivier, Mundell Lowe, Mulligan, and myself. Interestingly, Mel Torme and Sarah Vaughan also were guests. I met Mulligan and then two months later, I was living in New York and his drummer at the time said Gerry was looking for a new keyboard player and if I wanted to audition. I did and I got the job. I stayed with him for several years. I never would have had that chance if I remained in Los Angeles. That was the primary reason for the move.

FJ: And your collaborations with Bud Shank?

BM: Well, I could say a lot about Bud, but one thing I want to say is I miss his flute playing tremendously. He is just a dynamite flautist. I would encourage everybody who loves Bud Shank’s music, regardless of the instrument, to try to get a hold of an album that he and I did with flute and piano in 1979. We recorded it for Concord and it is out of print now. It was just the two of us. Bud did another great album called Crystal Comments where he played nothing but flute and he had two great keyboard players on it, myself and Alan Broadbent. Somewhere down the line, he wanted to give it up and just concentrate on alto.

When I first met Bud, we were both doing studio dates. We worked together a lot down through the years and I did his last two records. I am doing some gigs. We will be at Spazio’s in July. He has such energy in his playing. Bud is seventy-something now and he is playing with the energy of a seventeen-year-old kid. He is a lot of fun on the bandstand and he is a lot of fun to hang out with. I love him dearly. He has always put together great bands too and his current one is a sextet with Conte Candoli was playing until his death and Jay Thomas and Bob Magnusson is in the band.

FJ: Subtlety is an art you are well versed in.

BM: Well, thank you. A general philosophy of mine is don’t try to play everything you know in your next solo. I believe in really playing with and off of my sidemen and my playing really varies a lot depending who is in the rhythm section. You can still tell it is me, but the way I solo on a given tune, if I am playing with Matt Wilson and Martin Wind, it is going to be different than Shelly Manne and Chuck Domanico. They are two completely different rhythm sections.

I don’t like to lead a trio with the concept that I am a piano soloist with bass and drum accompaniment. That’s another school of thought and that is fine. It works for some people, but I don’t subscribe to that. I really want a lot of interaction. I feel that economy serves me best and I want to make a strong statement, but I have all night to do it and I don’t have to play a lot of notes in every solo and I don’t have to play a lot of choruses. It varies from night to night. It just so happens that Summer Sketches was one of the more subtle CDs that I’ve made. It had a certain muted tone to it. I loved it. The piano sound is magnificent.

FJ: Martin Wind and Matt Wilson reprise their roles on your latest, Going Home.

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