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Bill Mays is a veteran artist with an extensive musical resumé, having taken part in all kinds of session work, ranging from movie soundtracks to jazz, backing vocalists and even working with Frank Zappa! Mays paid his dues as a sideman with Sarah Vaughan, Bud Shank and Gerry Mulligan while he also played with Benny Golson, Bud Shank, Art Pepper and the Mel Lewis Orchestra. His activities as a leader began to pick up during the '80s, recording a duo date with Red Mitchell and two duo CDs with Ray Drummond. Since then he has recorded on a steady basis, in addition to appearing with trumpeter/flugelhornist Marvin Stamm in a duo, quartet or their Inventions Trio. In 2009 Mays took over the piano chair in the Phil Woods Quintet yet he still finds time to lead his own trio with Martin Wind and Matt Wilson.
Solo! is neither Mays' first DVD nor his first solo piano session. Like his earlier trio DVD Live at WVIA-TV, this performance was recorded live in the same public television studio with an audience, using three cameras and videotaped in HD. He explains at the beginning of the program that he chose pieces by eight different pianists who influenced him, though not all of the songs are widely performed. Sonny Clark's "Cool Struttin'" proves to be a snappy hard bop opener while Jimmy Rowles' overlooked bittersweet ballad "Looking Back" is a lyrical masterpiece, with a quick reference by Mays to Rowles' magnificent "The Peacocks." The influence of Bill Evans is unmistakable in "Dolphin Dance" and Evans' own "Waltz For Debby" but Mays is very much his own man and not a clone of the late pianist. "Freight Trane" is a perky blues by the late Tommy Flanagan that Mays tackles with enthusiasm, which will doubtlessly provoke a few listeners into returning to its debut on the album Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane. Mays gives Clare Fischer's "Pensativa" a dramatic reworking by strumming the strings in the introduction before launching into its familiar Latin theme and playing it a bit more aggressively than most other pianists who tackle it.
A brief but informative interview is included midway into the program. The camera work and audio is superb throughout the entire concert; a variety of camera angles are utilized, though the operators never get carried away with split screens, excessive audience shots or overlong superimposed imagery.
Instead of using his regular trio for Mays at the Movies (possibly because both Wind and Wilson are leaders themselves and in demand by other bandleaders) Mays works with two other seasoned players, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Billy Drummond, this their very first session together. Movie soundtracks were once a fertile ground for jazz musicians (they still can be today, though to a much lesser extent due to the reduced emphasis on straight-ahead composers) and with his extensive background working and composing for movies, it should come as no surprise that the pianist would choose to interpret some of his favorite works written for films.
Opening with an elegant but swinging setting of "I've Never Been in Love Before," it's immediately apparent that Mays intimately knows these songs. One of his most difficult tasks was interpreting Alex North's "Love Theme from Spartacus," a personal favorite of Bill Evans, who made more than one landmark recording of it. But Mays finds his own path through this tender ballad, building upon its lyricism in a lengthy exploration with the trio. Mays adds a spirited vocal in "You Leave Me Breathless" while the one original, "Judy," has been in more than one film, a peppy bop vehicle that whimsically incorporates a bit of Thelonious Monk.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.