Bill Mays: When Mays Plays, Musicians Listen

Jason West By

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And doing this with two other people in a trio means that sometimes absolutely magical things can and do happen, and sometimes it falls on its face. The point is not to care.
O the infinite particulars of modern jazz. Promoters can't sell it. Audiences are hesitant to pay for it. Most players make next to nothing. There're no hits. No stars. Minimal airplay. A distant third on the priority list behind dinner and conversation.

But occasionally there is magic. Life-affirming magic. The most immediate and intimate kind. If you listen close you can feel it along with the musicians as it happens ï" and then it's over.

The magic of jazz improvisation is hard to create and even harder to describe, but suffice it to say that Bill Mays is a piano wizard. Silver-haired and large in stature (imagine John Wayne rooted to the piano bench), Mays was born February 5, 1944, into a musical family in northern California. His first exposure to jazz, at age 16, was a concert by Earl 'Fatha' Hines. "A friend took me to a jazz brunch and Fatha was playing solo piano, Bill remembers. "It was so new to my ears, and it was burning! His rhythmic drive, unusual melodic twists, two-handed independence and use of the whole keyboard thrilled and inspired me.

The following year Mays joined the U.S. Navy band and in '69 moved to Los Angeles to play jazz with that city's finest musicians, including Buddy Collette, Harold Land, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Art Pepper, Bobby Shew, Danny Embrey, Ernie Watts, even Frank Zappa. In '84 Mays transplanted to New York City. "I wanted to broaden my scope, work with some of the people I'd always admired and continue to grow as a writer and player," he explains.

Mays' affiliation with Palmetto Records began in 1999 and coincided with the formation of his current trio with drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind. Tunes from the trio's latest release, Going Home , were featured during the pianist's 2003 Earshot festival appearances at the Triple Door. However, filling in for Wilson and Wind were northwest notables Gary Hobbs and Chuck Deardorfï"an original personnel combination, and one that prompted my initial query.

All About Jazz: During your Earshot festival appearance last November at the Triple Door, you were not at all shy about showing your enthusiasm, shouting your approval after many of the tunes. You seemed to revel in the spontaneity. How is it that three guys who havenït played together before can be so intuitive?

Bill Mays: Besides the fact that we three are using the same "vocabulary" and have all been improvisers for an aggregate of, easily, 80 years, Gary and Chuck both spent time familiarizing themselves with my music, via lead sheets and recordings, and came in totally prepared ï" prepared in the "academic" sense by being totally at home with the "road maps, prepared technically because they are superior players on their instruments, and prepared emotionally in that they both have "big ears," are unafraid to take chances, are always ready to go in any direction, and they both check their egos at the door. The flow of the music, not look-at-what-I-can-do governs the proceedings. How's that for a short answer?!

AAJ: You performed two pieces by pianist Bill Evans, "Very Early and "Your Story. How great of an influence was Mr. Evans on your playing?

BM: Evans' harmonic sense, the way he voiced chords, his deeply lyrical playing, his gorgeous tone at the piano ï" all influenced me greatly. I also, and maybe equally, was deeply influenced, in other not-so-similar ways, by the piano playing of Earl Hines, Hank Jones, Sonny Clark, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Rowles.

AAJ: Classical composers like Chopin and Dvorak figure prominently into your music, especially in your renditions of tunes like "Body and Soul and "Going Home. How often do you listen to classical music? What can the jazz musician learn from the classical musician and vice versa?

BM: I listen to classical music more than any other music; I go through different "periods"ï"right now I'm hung up the Prokofiev piano concertos. We jazz musicians can continue to learn about better pedaling technique, tone production, attention to detail. Of course, though jazz 8th-note phrasing is different than classical, I've realized great benefit to the hands ï" not to mention the ears ï" of playing, especially, the Chopin and Debussy etudes, Ravel, Brahms, Bach inventions and Beethoven sonatas. Classical players often speak of fear of playing anything without the printed notes in front of them. In clinics I've performed, it's always a joy to have them close their eyes and, as I suggest a scene or scenario, have them make notes based solely on their feelings about that scene, on the spur of the moment, with no regard to "form" or "style and presto, in a primitive way, they are "improvising." They could learn a lot from us by continuing to "practice" that in their practice sessions, with a result, I think, of more expression and feeling coming out in their playing of the printed score.


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