Kevin Hays: Creative Flow
GC: So do you start with scales?
KH: I do, I do! Surprisingly. I used to always get annoyed because people used to always say, " What scale do you play over this chord?" And I would say, "No, what chord are you going to play over this scale?" Pick a scaleif you have to ask that question, you don't know what the sound is. If it's a diminished scale sound, and you are thinking say C, Eb, Gb, A, then you are missing a bunch of other notes. And also if you are thinking a diminished sound is C, E, G, Bb, Db, meaning a C7b9 sound, you are still missing a bunch of notes. What scale are you thinking about? For me, I like to have all the notes laid out in front of me, all 8 or 9 notes, then I can pick and choose what notes I want.
GC: What about the shape of the line and phrasing? What would you say to a student who already knows the scales and chords and needs to make it sound like jazz?
KH: Oftentimes, even though we know the scale, we seem to always go to our comfortable notes. Like we always go to the 9th on the minor 7th chord. I want to get all the notes in the scale to have equal importance, so that you always have the full palette of colors available to you. Sometimes, I will have a student play a chord in the left hand, and then play the chromatic scale against the chord to hear how each note sounds against the chord. I might have them play a major chord and then play the chromatic scale, and so you have b9, 9, #9, 3, 4, etc... so you can hear the relative dissonance with each note against the chord. And then we might do that on a dominant chord, or an altered dominant.
But then what I suggest is, take the first three or four measures of a tune. I then have them play from the top part of the keyboard through the chords and play eighth notes consistently down the keyboard and connect the scales depending on which chord, in this case E-7b5, A7#9#5, C-7, and F7. But if you do it from a different note each time, you end up coming up with some very interesting note choices just using scale tones. Then I have them add one chromatic note in each measure, anywhere in the scale, and that makes for some very beautiful lines. Of course, this is a very systematic way with just eighth notes, but if you start to use different rhythms, and go different directions on the keyboard, you start to have more options than, you know, just your favorite arpeggio on a given chord.
I always wanted to avoid patterns and licks. I got into them for a second, and was sometimes impressed with licks, but I always got bored with those sort of things quickly. The players I liked never sounded like they played licks, they always sounded spontaneous. I liked the guys who surprised me! So that's how I wanted to play. And it's interesting because when you play an exercise like the one I just mentioned, as structured as it is, you are surprised!
GC: Last question: You lived in New York for years, and then you moved out to Santa Fe, New Mexico for a few years. Why did you move out and why did you move back?
KH: I was dealing with some depression issues, some personal issues...I was struggling with that in New York, and I just need to get away for a while and sort that out. I ultimately came back because there was not much of a music scene out in Sante Fe, and my roots are all here so I felt like it was time to come back. But it's something I'm still struggling withself-searching, trying to find out what's important. How do I live healthfully and creatively, and not lose my shit? As you know, musician's lives are rather unstable. It's still difficult. I haven't been playing much these days. I love playing, of course, but I'm trying to put it together. I feel like most of my growth as a musician has not come from practicing. I remember coming from Sante Fe, where I was not practicing much at all, and I did a gig with Nicholas Payton, and Nicholas said, "Whatever you are doing out there in New Mexico, keep doing it!" Sometimes it's just about getting out of your own way. It's about taking stuff away, rather than adding to it. Getting out of the way of the creative flow. The challenge for me is to not block the creative flow.
GC: But are you happy to be back in New York?
KH: Absolutely, I have some projects coming up, a two piano thing with Brad Mehldau, a performance and recording, and I'm playing some with Tim Ries, and some Indian musicians. It's an abundant time. I'm not touring much, but I'm just thankful that I'm still... playing.