Kevin Hays: Creative Flow

George Colligan By

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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.
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