The title of a recent AAJ interview, “ When Mays Plays, Musicians Listen
,” doesn’t fully fully tell the whole story about torch pianist Bill Mays. Not only musicians dig Mays. Non-musician audiences around the world enjoy his shows too. Perhaps this can be attributed to his versatility as an artist. The flexible pianist who spent much of his early career in the Los Angeles studios, produces great art in any setting.
These days, in one month Mays might perform solo, sit with a studio orchestra and do a soundtrack, work in his duo with trumpeter Marvin Stamm and do a few shows with his Toronto-based chamber jazz septet or the Philadelphia Piano Quartet. His sensitive ear and exhaustive knowledge of the jazz, pop, and classical canons, allow him to work in any setting and sound like a pro. His penchant and ability to spontaneously deconstruct Bach and Chopin into modern improvisations has been a way to reach out to non-jazz audiences on college campuses across the U.S. as well as on public television.
But in my estimation, it’s the trio where Mays has made his most important mark since leaving the comfortable stability of West Coast studio work in the mid-eighties. Featuring the well-known Matt Wilson on drums and German bassist Martin Wind, Mays has carved out a nice little group that he can call his own. Just this year alone the trio (in various permutations, often replacing Wilson with Joe LaBarbera), has been featured at the IAJE Conference in New York, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and clubs in Germany, Denmark, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Mays, Wilson, and Wind will be featured on August 7 at the Litchfield Jazz Festival in Litchfield, CT.
The Bill Mays Trio has been together in this configuration for approximately four years now and you can hear it. Communication and a full understanding of each others’ playing is key to this band’s success. Only a few trios in the world today can rival this band and I would have no misgivings in saying Mays’ trio has just as much to say and has as good a rapport between members as Keith Jarrett has with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.
I caught up with Mays, Wilson, and Wind for a Thursday night late show at the Kennedy Center’s KC Jazz Club. It being April 29, Duke Ellington’s birthday, and the fact that they were in Ellington’s hometown, Washington, DC, I knew the audience was in for a treat.
The set began with a thoughtful and swinging rendition of the old standard “I Should Care,” Wilson’s brush strokes respectfully keeping the beat bouncy while also adding flourishes that punctuated the form. Wind’s solo entirely took the band out of time. Mays and Wilson played a game of polyrhythmic cat and mouse with the bassist before they backed down, as it was evident that the bassist wanted to stretch out. And that he did with some of the most clearly enunciated bop lines I’ve ever heard out of an upright bassist, eventually falling back into the original time signature as if nothing had changed in between.
Then the pianist announced that it was Ellington’s birthday and noted that having made a tribute album to Duke, An Ellington Affair , he would dedicate the set to Duke. This introduction brought the audience back to the signature sound of Ellington’s writing for the stage with a selection from Ellington’s Perfume Suite entitled “Dancers in Love”. But before Mays could start, Wilson was fumbling through his music, unable to find his music. Instead of waiting in silence like many might have done, Mays launched an impromptu legato intro.
“I’ll just do what Duke used to do while the musicians slowly got on the bandstand,” Mays informed the audience.
The piece had a spare and simple melody with a very active left hand reminiscent of stride. “Dancers in Love” showed what is so great about a pianist like Mays. He’s a complete jazz musician. His versatility to seamlessly jump from era to era of jazz is hard to come by these days as so many guys want to play out of this one bag of licks and tricks and not other musical bags that have just as much musicality and subtleness in them. His understanding of the old-school technique and feel are just as good as his playing on unmistakably modern jazz.
Wilson’s brushes solo was particularly riveting not in a sense of pyrotechnics but more in its remarkable moderation and brief outbursts. The first two choruses were played at a hush while incredibly rhythmically intense. You could hear Sam Woodyard with genre-specific accents on the traps that you don’t hear much from younger players. He just made you feel like you were back in 1947 when The Perfume Suite had its premiere.