Like trumpeter Tim Hagans, whose recent release Beautiful Lily represents a welcome return to recording as a leader, pianist Kevin Hays is back with three records in the space of one year, following a seven-year break. Piano Works III: Open Range (ACT, 2005) is a solo effort, while his forthcoming ArtistShare disc features his longstanding trio with bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Bill Stewart. Based on the evidence of What Survives, a recent independent release featuring the same trio from a couple of 2001 sessions, their forthcoming project will be something to watch for.
That's not to say that Hays hasn't been busy. In the years since Andalucia (Blue Note, 1996), he's played on albums by artists including Hagans, saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Eddie Henderson. While he possesses the formidable technique to play in virtually any context, it's his open-mindedness and avoidance of stylistic pigeon-holing that's made him a pianist who, if not a household name to the jazz listening public, is certainly well-known in the jazz community.
For the uninitiated, What Survives is a strong entry point, highlighting Hays' abstract yet appealing writing, and a playing style thatlike fellow pianist Marc Coplandis filled with impressionistically out-of-the-box yet eminently lyrical musical thinking. It also demonstrates Hays' ability to innovatively adapt classical material that's as reverential yet improvisationally profound as woodwind player Tim Garland's similar work on Acoustic Triangle's recent Resonance (Audio-B, 2005).
The album opens with three Hays originals, ranging from "Stellar, whose dark and introspective solo piano introduction evolves into lithely swinging vehicle for understated interplay between Hays, Weiss and Stewart. The title track revolves around a repeated 11/8 bass figure doubled by Weiss and Hays' left handthe piano treated to lend it a "buzzing quality. Hays gradually builds a vivid yet economical solo while Stewart plays liberally with time placement. Hays applies a delicate electronic tremolo on the brooding "Black Elk, reminiscent of the subtle processing of Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson; but Hays, while equally contemporary, is less pop-inflected.
Four adaptations of classical pieces follow, with "Anniversary Waltz being the most well-known. Hays retains its familiar theme intact over Weiss and Stewart's vivid swing, but reharmonizations lend a more modernistic edge. "J.B. is the clear highlight of the album, demonstrating just how forward-thinking Hays' musical aesthetic is. Based on Brahms' "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, it opens with reverse-attack processed piano, but ultimately moves into an organic middle section that progressively narrows the 200-year gap between its composition and Hays' performance.
An ambient reading of the classic "You are My Sunshine ends the disc on an ambiguous note that proves beauty can be found in the most somber of places. The long break between albums may have cost Hays some momentum, but also works to his advantage in allowing him to reinvent himself. What Survives is hopefully just the beginning of a renewed solo career that will finally see the confidence of the jazz community translate into profile with the larger jazz-buying public.
Personnel: Kevin Hays: piano; Doug Weiss: bass; Bill Stewart: drums.