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Kevin Hays: Creative Flow


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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

If you aren't familiar with pianist Kevin Hays, you should be. He's recorded and toured with many of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. And those who call him can't seem to get enough of him. His recent projects as a leader on Artistshare have been stunningly beautiful. I've been a fan ever since I came to New York. I heard him with Eddie Henderson's band many times, and I heard him with many other projects, including his own. I caught a bit of his trio set at the 55 Bar in New York in August and asked him if he would do an interview for Jazztruth. He said yes and we agreed to meet in Central Park on a lazy summer afternoon. Hays was very insightful about music, in a philosophical way, but also in a very practical way. I found the interview to be most illuminating. (Note: It took a long time to find the time to transcribe this. I had to hide in various rooms of my apartment to focus on it. Sorry, family!)

George Colligan: We are here with Kevin Hays—jazz pianist extraordinaire, composer, and vocalist? We might discuss that at some point.

Kevin Hays: [laughs] We might dispute that at some point!

GC: I just want to say right off that I'm new at this, so it's pretty loose. I don't edit much and I like to let people talk as much as they want. I think that's what the real fans want, they want the real information from the musicians, not just "Musician X has a new CD out, blah blah blah...."

KH: PR time!

GC: So be as candid as you want. If you wanna dish, dish! OK...What are your earliest memories of your musical life? As far back as you can remember. What made you want to become a jazz musician?

KH: Well, my earliest memories are of my father playing the piano. He was an amateur pianist. He would plunk through some standards now and then. So I would hear him on the piano we had in the house. I remember watching him. Sometimes he had some broken "stride" piano stuff happening, which I liked. That's probably my earliest memory—the first music I heard. There [were] also records played in the house. My parents had some George Shearing records, and they had a Jimmy Smith record called Organ Grinder Swing.

GC: We were just talking about that record with Jimmy Greene!

KH: Yeah, it's so great, I remember "Satin Doll." And he had some Oscar Peterson. So those were the early jazz guys I was into. Now, I didn't immediately get really into jazz. I was into rock, and whatever was on the radio, some Barry Manilow! I was born in 1968, and I guess by the time I was 10, I was into various kinds of music. I'm the youngest of four siblings. My older brother was into some fusion, some YES, some Jeff Beck, and some prog-rock. I started taking piano lessons, some classical lessons, at a local conservatory in Westchester, although I grew up in Connecticut. So I got into it pretty young. And in my early teens I started really getting into jazz. And then there was a local jazz pianist named Lou Stein who used to play around—he was on some of the Bird With Strings recordings. So he would play at a local restaurant, and my father wanted to take lessons with him, and then finally I started to take lessons with him. So Lou Stein was my first real jazz piano teacher. And then I went to Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan for a few summers, and I took a "crash course" in jazz piano there, you know, voicings and basic stuff. And this was when I was really off to the races. I really got the bug then. I felt like I really was understanding the sounds I was hearing on recordings, you know, left hand voicings like 7/ 3/ 13, and it all started to make sense.

GC: How old were you at the time?

KH: I was around 14 years old. I was playing "Color My World" before that! So this was a huge eye-opener for me. I think one of the things that got me was the rhythm of jazz, the swing rhythm. I played drums a bit in junior high and my brother [also] had a garage band, which had a huge drum set, and I used to play on it sometimes.

GC: So you moved to New York when you were around 18?

KH: Well, I grew up about an hour from the city, so I had a lot of exposure to New York in high school. I actually started doing gigs in the city while I was still in high school. Bassist Sean Smith and I are good friends from high school and we used to come into the city together. We were actually in some rock bands together. And then I heard he was playing upright bass, and getting into jazz. [So] we started playing together a bit. He's a couple years older and there was a crew of guys that he was connected to who were going to LaGuardia School of the Performing Arts. Guys like alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, pianist Bill Charlap, and some others. I started hanging out with them, I became really good friends with Charlap, and I sort of followed in his footsteps by studying with some of the same teachers he had, like Jack Reilly, and classical piano teacher Eleanor Hancock. So that was my intro to New York. In fact, Charlap was playing a steady gig at Knickerbocker, and he was leaving the gig, so he got me on the gig. So I got to play at Knickerbocker while I was still in high school, which was really exciting. It was great also because Bradley's was right around the corner, and I'd get to hear all these great pianists all the time, like Kenny Barron, Roger Kellaway, and Hank Jones. I had to sneak in cause I was underage. I guess I shouldn't have even been allowed to play at the Knickerbocker as well! So it was very cool. Sean and I used to come into town and play with a guitarist named Dan Rockliss—who moved to Spain. We all went on our first tour of Europe with drummer Tony Moreno. I had been a student at Manhattan School, but when I got this gig, I split.

GC: So you never finished your degree?

KH: No, I never did. I'm a bit of a drop out.

GC: Do you feel like you missed out on something by not finishing your schooling?

KH: I think it's possible that I did. I was pretty headstrong—still am! [Laughs] I'm working on it. But I wasn't really a focused student. I pretty much did what I wanted to do and I knew I wanted to play and I really wasn't interested in much else. So I was kind of driven in that way. I sort of wished that I had paid more attention to my classes while I was there. Things like music history—I was so not there! All I cared about was "How do I get this feel together? How do I swing? How do I learn to comp?" No one was teaching me this! I did have some lessons with Harold Danko, which was cool. I was only there for one semester, so maybe if I had given it a chance...I guess you can pay a price if you are myopic and focused on only one thing. That means there's probably something you aren't learning, if you are only zooming in on one thing.

GC: So many music students now only go to school, and learn that way, because they can't go off to do a tour. There's not much of the apprenticeship system left, so most music students only have their school experiences to draw from. Can we agree that this is not for the best?

KH: I'm not sure if that is really the case! I mean, obviously young musicians can't apprentice with musicians who are no longer here (Art Blakey, etc...). But there are still opportunities. And they can get the information, maybe not from the first guy who created it, but from somebody else who has played with the real cats...

GC: Why shouldn't they apprentice with you?

KH: Well, yeah, I've played with younger musicians in a way that you could call an apprenticeship—learning from somebody who is older and more experienced. There are plenty of those guys around—yourself included. The information that you got from the older cats you worked with, it just streams right through you.

GC: Do think that the kids in schools are getting this?

KH: It's hard for me to say... probably not if you are really isolated. New York is different because there are so many of those guys around. I was fortunate to have played with Benny Golson when I was 23 andJoe Henderson when I was in my 20's. That probably would not have happened if I had not been in New York. But initially, I wasn't touring that much! I was just getting together with friends and jamming. I think that's probably missing more than the other things you mentioned. But then ultimately that weeds itself out in a way, because now you have so many guys in school who can barely play with a group, who maybe aren't up to snuff, in terms of being able to play with a group, or keep the form, or play a blues, or whatever. If there's one thing I think is lacking in the schools, it's the vetting process; it's a little suspect. It's like if you have the money to pay, you can go to music school. Some of these kids just aren't ready. It's hard for me to say how it's supposed to work.

But for me it was playing with friends. Sean Smith coming over to the house—I met drummer Leon Parker at a record store in White Plains, and then he would come over to the house and we would play. I was going to hear a lot of music in the city—not to sound stuck up about the New York thing, cause there are probably lots more scenes now then there ever were in other parts of the world.

GC: Maybe...

KH: Well, let's just take Europe for instance. Do you think 20, 25 years ago, you could perceive anywhere near the same kind of jazz experience that you have now? I don't think so... you didn't have the level of guys that could play. There were some, but it kind of exploded!

GC: A lot of those guys studied here.

KH: Yes, but they brought it back home. What I'm saying is that if you don't want to go to New York, you could go to Munich and there would be a scene there. That wasn't the case two decades ago.

GC: When did you start recording for Steeplechase?

KH: I actually did my first record in 1990 for a Japanese label before Steeplechase, a label called Jazz City. That CD was bought by Evidence years later. Then, 1991 through '93 I did three CDs for Steeplechase. Then I signed with Blue Note in 1993.

GC: I had all three of your Blue Note CDs. In reverse order, Andalucia, then Go Round, and then Seventh Sense. Which is your favorite?

KH: I don't know, I haven't listened to them in a while. I think they all had something. I think SeventhSense had a great vibe—the sound was great. It was great to play with Brian Blade; there was something special about that one.

GC: I only played with Brian Blade a few times, but I think that it is easy to underestimate his playing.

KH: [Laughs].

GC: What I mean is, and with many jazz drummers, it's not a chopsfest.

KH: It's a musicfest!

GC: Right! It's about putting everything in the right place and his interpretation. You get the sense he has total commitment to the music.

KH: And the drama factor with Blade, he's got this simmering quality.

GC: And Billy Hart on Go Round and Jack DeJohnette on Andalucia.

KH: I love playing with great drummers!

GC: And you worked a lot with Al Foster and you played with Bill Stewart. So the bar has been set pretty high for drummers. Did you ever play with Art Blakey?

KH: No, I never did. I'm not sure I would have fit in with that scene. I was a little freaked out by that whole thing. I didn't identify with playing with him.

GC: As opposed to Geoffrey Keezer, who I think really fit that band.

KH:I did have a chance to play with Roy Haynes for a bit and also Joe Chambers. The drummer thing in New York is a big thing. You get such an education with drummers.

GC: Do you think the fact that you played the drums when you were young helped you to play with these great drummers?

KH: Maybe...

GC: A lot of my students always ask, "How can I play and not turn the time around and keep the form?" and so forth. I always say, "Listen to the drums. Listen to their vocabulary. You can't just count."

KH: Hear the phrases. You have to take that leap of faith. Listen instead of count. It's weird, because lately I've been playing with Bill Stewart so much, but I've been playing with some different drummers lately, and I'm so used to Bill that it's weird. I've been playing with Jochen Rueckert and Rodney Green, some of the younger guys, and I find I have to get used to their phrasing so that I don't have to think about it too much. Playing with drummers—it's much more important to listen to their phrasing than to be uptight and worried about getting it wrong. It's not about not screwing up. It's about screwing up and learning from that. If you are too tight about it, it's no fun. Of course, this is years later talking about it! I'm talking from the experience of being uptight. I mean you don't want to get lost in the form when you are playing with Roy Haynes! [Laughs] Cause you might be lost for a while!

GC: I remember the first time I saw you play was at the Visiones jam session, which was led by Eddie Henderson. You were playing with Ed Howard on bass, Greg Bandy on drums, Joe Locke on vibes, and I remember there was a tall female singer that sang. You guys played one of your hits, "El Gaucho" by Wayne Shorter, and then Eddie said, "I wanna change the color a little bit..." and then you and this singer did a duo, I don't remember what tune it was, but I remember being VERY intimidated and thinking "Man, I gotta learn how to comp like that!" Many that know you speak about your great comping, and it seems as though the people that hire you are sort of enamored with your comping, they continually hire you for that. Is it something that you could always do or did you study it?

KH: But it's funny because I felt like I had no idea! I used to tell Billy Hart, "I don't know what to do, how to do this..." And Billy said, "But this is what you are known for!" I think that because I wasn't sure what to play, [which] made me leave more space. I realized that I needed to listen before I played. And I also had guys telling me when I played with Roy Haynes, Donald Harrison used to always turn around and tell me, "RESPOND!" or "REACT!" I guess I wasn't comping the way he thought I should be. In other words, he was saying, "Stop trying to comp. Stop trying to be clever and just listen." And I was just nervous about playing with Roy Haynes!

Also, when I played with Joe Henderson...apparently, I was getting in the way with my comping, so Joe clued me in, saying "It would be great if you comped for ME the way you comp for YOURSELF." So that was a bit of a clue. So now when I teach pianists how to comp for themselves, I say," Don't play your left hand and right hand at the same time! Just play in the holes!" And when you comp for yourself, which is kind of the joke of what happened with Joe Henderson, is that you know what you are going to play. I said to Joe, "Yeah, I know what my right hand is going to play!" It began the process of me listening better.

But I was also obsessed with the great compers, like Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, and Bill Evans. Herbie really had that shit together. I think he was the best comper, for my taste.

GC: This is why he worked so much! I've only had one student who actually asked me about "how" to comp. It's so abstract in a way, that at first I didn't really have an answer, but I started to get some ideas on how to explain that. Did you ever "practice" comping?

KH: I did, I listened to records and I played along and I would try to "cop" their comping. It's such a big part of our gig, being able to comping. There are certain things that I realized had to happen, based on my listening and playing along. One thing is that these guys are not just plunking down voicings that they pull out of their library of voicings; a lot of times there is a melodic line going on at the top of these chords. So there is a direction. I wish I was at the piano—I would give a musical example. I think that a lot of people think it's just rhythmic. And you can't divorce that from the melodic element, you are missing something. That's something I realized when I started checking out Herbie's comping, or Chick Corea's comping, or Wynton Kelly's comping. It's not just, "I know this voicing for this chord and I'm going to play it in this rhythm and so forth." So that's when I think my comping improved, when I realized it's not just for comping, this is applicable to any playing. Just knowing basic voice leading. I find that's something that students have no idea about. They always want to know, "What voicings should I play?" And instead of giving them a book of voicings, I ask them , "What is the scale?" Which they often don't know, and then I tell them, "You take the root, 3rd and 7th, and then you add one other note besides the melody, and you have to voice lead." And pretty soon, the voicings appear on their own, you don't need a library of voicings.

GC: You have more options...

KH: Yeah, and they reveal themselves, and it comes from a more musical place, rather than saying, "I know 25 dominant voicings."

GC: That's an education for me because I find myself frustrated with students. They seem so lost sometimes, I give them voicings just so that they are playing something.

KH: Well, what I prefer to do is to show them the process, so that they can find it for themselves. For example, we figure out which scale that we are dealing with. The thing is, the problem is we are always looking for the voicing for one chord, we need to think about where it's going. You have to know where you are headed. That determines the voicing.

It seems like if a student is playing the melody and having trouble finding voicings, I tell them, "Pick one note out of this scale," let's say the first chord scale of "Stella By Starlight," E F# G A Bb C D E. Pick a note that isn't the root of the melody. You'll find, all of a sudden, that voicings come out of nowhere that you didn't think of. Let's say that you pick the D and you don't go to the obvious third on the A7 chord, you go up. So you go to the Eb for the A7 chord, then you have a quick chromatic F going up to the C minor 7 chord, and then you go to a Gb on the F7. All of a sudden, there's a line that's happening, and I ask the students, "did you ever play that voicing before? "And they say "No!" I then say, " Pick another note..." You can go up or down.

And students tend to see these chords as static entities. Like the A7 in that piece, the 13th is always altered. I like to see these chords as a stack of options that ultimately get distilled down to where I just think A Dominant, and you could have both the altered 13th and the natural 13, and hopefully at some point you could have access to all twelve tones of the scale on any given chord. But they have to go through the process of learning the scales

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 scale—if 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 with—self-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.

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