Bill Mays Trio
New York City
April 13-14, 2007
This was my first visit to the jazz club at the Kitano Hotel on Park Avenue in New York. I was spending the day in Manhattan with a lady friend, and when I learned that pianist Bill Mays was going to perform, I made a reservation for us. The experience was a real pleasure. Mays was in peak form, and bassist Rufus Reid and drummer John Riley achieved a fine groove with Mays, both providing excellent backup as well as stunning soloing and simultaneous improvisation, creating a rich ensemble effect.
The club itself deserves commendation. Its stamp of quality is evident from the moment of entry. The friendly host, Gino Moratti, is not your average maître d'. He's involved in several aspects of the music business, wears a well-tailored business suit, and exudes an air of competence. The main listening area is intimate and well-appointed, evoking the warmth of a living room. The audience on this particular occasion consisted of serious jazz fans, including a number of musicians, affording an excellent listening context with minimal ambient glass-clinking and conversation. The waitstaff were friendly and efficient. Furthermore, there was no need for sound amplification, and it was a pleasure to hear the clear, unadulterated acoustical sound of the instruments.
Mays, who did a stint as a Hollywood studio musician and composer during his tenure on the West Coast, based the set on themes from motion pictures, including title songs as well as several interesting background motifs. In addition to his familiarity with the films and composers themselves, evident from his chatty descriptions of them, Mays is especially well-suited to this task because he is able to evoke a wide range of emotions, moods, and images in his playing, and one could almost visualize scenes on the big screen as he developed variations and permutations from each tune. The best jazz musicians (Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Keith Jarrett, for example) do not merely perform cleverly. Rather, they create spontaneous compositions with complete form and development, evoking stories in the mind of the listener. In addition, they invoke multiple traditions and relate profoundly to their supporting cast of musicians. Thus, Mays fully developed each tune into a rich array of variations, and he was in deep contact with Reid and Riley throughout.
The set began with the Briceuse/Newley standard "Pure Imagination from the classic film, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which Mays took delicately at first and built up to a somewhat frenzied climax. This was followed by source music written hastily by Mays himself during the making of the 1981 science fantasy movie Looker, with James Coburn and Albert Finney. Then came Mancini's music for Charade, which Mays performed luxuriantly, with many choruses, each of which suggested its own particular connotations.
The group went far out with variations on music from Changing Lanes with Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck, and music composed by David Arnold. On this tune the trio played in the borderland between music and sonic effects, with Mays plucking the piano strings, Reid glissading along the bass registers, and Riley creating eerie resonances by pressing a drumstick into the tom-tom and rubbing his fingers along the stick. The piece had the feeling of hypermodern music and capitalized on Mays' knowledge of film effects. Only the skill and artfulness of the trio helped the rendition to go beyond "kitch and emerge as an engaging musical experience.
By way of contrast, the group concluded its cinematic adventures on a sentimental note, performing Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow of Your Smile (from The Sandpiper) and "Emily (from The Americanization of Emily). As an encore, they did David Raksin's standard "Laura, from the 1944 Otto Preminger film by the same name. The group worked up to a remarkable staccato contrapuntal duet between Mays and Reid, perhaps representing the house-of-mirrors deceptions of the Laura character, who is, after all, "only a dream.
Overall, Bill Mays revealed himself to be a passionate and dedicated jazz "artiste, with a rich and varied palette based upon several decades of multifaceted experience with the best musicians in the business. John Riley's drumming was polished, yet energetic. Rufus Reid, consummate bassist that he is, performed impeccably and sensitively. And Mays was able to bring his group into an expressive groove that made for a memorable excursion along the "memory lane of jazz and the cinema.