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Owen McNally writes about jazz and other music events in Connecticut's Jazz Corridor, stretching from the tip of Fairfield County, right through New Haven and Hartford, and on up beyond the state into the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Keep up with the best our area has to offer in music.

Bill Mays Creates Orchestral Effects in Solo Piano Concert at Pittsfield Arts Festival

Bill Mays
Bill Mays will preform at 8:00 pm on Saturday, February 21 at the annual 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival at Baba Louie’s Backroom.";
Mays actually loves the existential challenge of being out there all alone.

A consummate jazz pianist, Bill Maysis so good, in so many varied ways, in so many diverse settings -- from chamber group to big band -- that his dazzling versatility and multiple talents sometime seem to outshine his luminous skills as a compelling solo concert pianist.

Mays, a globe-trotting musician, California native, and resident of Shohola, Pennsylvania, travels to the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts this weekend to shine a well-merited, bright light on his first-class solo piano artistry at 8:00 pm on Saturday, February 21, at the city of Pittsfield’s fourth annual 10x10 Upstreet Arts FestivalatBaba Louie’s Backroom, a noted Berkshire County jazz spot at 34 Depot Street. Tickets: $15.00 in advance, $20.00 on day of event at berkshiresjazz.org

Called "Ten Decades of Jazz Piano," Mays’ solo concert -- a celebration of classic keyboard styles from stride to modern -- is part of a wide-ranging arts and cultural festival in downtown Pittsfield that opened February 12 and runs through February 22. Information can be found atdiscoverpittsfield.com/10x10 or call (413) 499-9348.

Composer and pianist Bill Mays, shines both as a solo artist, and as accompanying performer.

In the spirit of the festival’s theme of “tens” -- exemplified by ten new plays written specifically for the event and the auctioning of art works sized 10x10 inches -- Mays will select the work of ten different composers -- one per decade over 100 years of jazz history -- and re-imagine them in his own unique solo style, one amazingly graced with two-fisted classical chops and bold, fluent jazz creations.

Unlike solophobic jazz pianists who prefer the Linus-type security blanket of having at least a bassist and drummer on stage with them, Mays actually loves the existential challenge of being out there all alone, just himself and a freshly tuned concert grand, soliloquizing musically on his hip, extemporaneous thoughts on swing and melodic and harmonic invention.

His unaccompanied solo piano triumphs include a resoundingly successful solo tour of China. The quality of the pianos from city to city -- always a risky hazard of the trade for peripatetic solo pianists -- was magnificent, he said, with theaters along the way rolling out fine Steinways and beautiful Bosendorfers for the American maestro. They were tuned and ready for Mays’ artful use of the pedals (appendages virtually ignored by some players), and his orchestral employment of the full keyboard from top to bottom.

Mays, who just can’t seem to get enough from the piano, even likes to reach inside under the instrument’s lid and pluck its most intimate inner strings, evoking harp and guitar-like effects. 

“I love playing solo piano,” Mays said enthusiastically, “and have played solo piano so much through the years that it’s not a big deal for me.” For some pianists, it is a very big deal, indeed, requiring a mental and physical pre-concert regimen much like a boxer preparing for stepping into the ring for a championship bout.

“I like unaccompanied solo playing as much as I do performing with a rhythm section,” he said by phone from West Palm Beach. Besides temporarily escaping a severe winter up North, he’s been enjoying playing concerts in Florida and, best of all, just completed a jazz boat cruise gig with his longtime friend and NEA Jazz Master, alto saxophonist Phil Woods.

Mays’s passion for the demanding solo format can be traced back to when he was 15 and a friend took him to see a solo performance by the legendary jazz pianist, Earl“Fatha”Hines. Mays, whose father was a minister and a decent amateur musician, had been studying classical piano since he was five and loved it, even the practicing part.

When not mastering Bach or Rachmaninoff or laboring on the finger-strengthening rigors of Czerny and Hanon exercise books, young Mays played gospel music in his father’s church and also listened to R&B, rock, and pop on the radio.

"Up until that point, I played classical music and hadn’t ever heard any jazz at all. I was so knocked out by Hines’s performance that I said to myself, this is what I want to do," Mays said. A jazz virtuoso, Hines dashed off dazzling, trumpet-like octaves that night. "More than anything, I think it was the way Hines used the whole keyboard. He was a two-fisted piano player, playing an old, beat-up, white upright piano. He had a piece of Masonite board underneath the piano that he stomped his foot on. I was totally taken by him."

Jazz lightning struck the classically immersed youth yet again just a few weeks later when Mays’s church choir director took him to see a Miles Davis quintet or sextet playing at the famous Black Hawk jazz club in San Francisco. “I can’t remember who the piano player was—maybe Wynton Kelly—because I had absolutely no framework for jazz, no background for any of this. I had never heard Miles before,” he said.

Mays has had a distinguished career spanning five and a half decades including roles as a top Hollywood studio musician, first-call sideman, and master accompanist for big name singers from Sarah Vaughan to Frank Sinatra, including, among scores of others, Anita O’Day, Peggy Lee, Al Jarreau, and Dionne Warwick. As a composer, he’s written compositions in many forms and diverse formats, reflecting his broad-sweeping knowledge of jazz and classical music and interest in an all-encompassing range of writers from Gil Evans to Maurice Ravel.

As a leader, Mays has created an acclaimed discography in varied configurations, including excellent trio and duo collaborations with such duo partners as Phil Woods and bassist Red Mitchell, among others.

The Inventions Trio, is a classical chamber group which brings together May, Marvin Stamm, and Alisa Horn.

In recent years, Mays has made extraordinary trio recordings with the magical drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind. Displaying yet another side of his multi-faceted artistry, he performs with and writes for his superb jazz and classically influenced chamber group, The Inventions Trio, classy collaborations with trumpeter/flugelhornistMarvin Stammand the classical cellist Alisa Horn.

Besides his many recordings as leader and sideman, he can be heard on numerous movie and TV soundtracks. As an industrial strength sideman and studio musician, he’s played with not only a legion of jazz greats, including Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Benny Golson, Art Pepper, and Mel Lewis, but has also been hired by the likes of commercial giants like Percy Faith and Barry Manilow.

More than likely, Mays is the only musician in the world who has served both as a sideman for such jazz gods as Gerry Mulligan, Phil Woods, and Sarah Vaughan and also worked as an all-purpose sideman with such diverse talents as televangelist Oral Roberts, Donny & Marie Osmond, and a then very young, obscure performer named Michael Jackson, about whom he remembers little. The pianist’s thick, varied resume includes many interesting footnote-like entries, including a gig playing clavinet for an orchestra led by the great Frank Zappa.

"Liberty is a quality that Mays thrives on in the solo piano format, just as he does with the equality and fraternity of the democratic interaction of a duo or trio."

Among the litany of displays of his fine-tuned collaborative skills, there periodically have also been triumphant solo piano performances, a setting that allows him much creative freedom. Liberty is a quality that Mays thrives on in the solo piano format, just as he does with the equality and fraternity of the democratic interaction of a duo or trio. Yet, unlike some soloists enraptured by their technique and ego, he never indulges in pyrotechnical pomp and pretension, always avoiding the sound and the fury signifying nothing but self-indulgence. 

Most notably, there was his solo piano performance on the 1992 Concord Records release, "Bill Mays Live at Maybeck Recital Hall.” A classic live series of 42 solo piano performances, Concord’s Maybeck recordings featured a distinguished roster of recitalists ranging alphabetically from Joanne Brackeen to Denny Zeitlin.

More recently, Mays recorded a live solo piano concert on an excellent DVD called "SOLO!" You can hear Mays using his full-bodied sound, tone, classical dexterity, and inexhaustible inventiveness on nine pieces on which he pays tribute to players whose music he has admired and in some cases, as with the late, great Bill Evans, even loved.

"SOLO!" opens with a swinging, soul-drenched homage to Sonny Clark with Clark’s classic, "Cool Struttin.’" It closes with an evocative, never imitative tribute to Thelonious Monk, with a beautifully reflective rendition of Monk’s mellow ballad, "Monk’s Mood."

Mays puts his own distinctive modern signature to original pieces written by members of his personal piano pantheon that also includes George Shearing, Jimmy Rowles, Herbie Hancock, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Evans, and Clare Fischer.

Credit Judy Kirtley
Mays has recorded his personal, musical history in "Stories of the Road, Studios, Sidemen & Singers: 55 Years in the Music Biz."

Pianist Turns Author

Using notes that he wrote down on his experiences over the years, Mays, who just turned 71 this month, has written an account of his career in a humorous, entertaining collection of anecdotes in a book titled: "Stories of the Road, the Studios, Sidemen & Singers: 55 Years in the Music Biz."

“It must be the world’s longest title,” he jokes with typical self-effacing humor that makes him an amusing raconteur.

All proceeds for the book go to the Musicians Assistance Program of the American Federation of Musicians. You can buy it online at his website, billmays.net. Illustrated with dozens of color and black-and-white photos, the 173 page, soft cover book costs $25 for buyers in the United States. Mays will have copies for sale at his solo concert Saturday night in Pittsfield.

Yale Festival Blooms Brightly

Jane Ira Bloom, the much celebrated, boldly innovative soprano saxophonist/composer, returns to Yale, her alma mater, to perform at 6 p.m. on Saturday, February 21, as the headliner at the third annual, admission-free, student-run Jazz Festival at Yale.

Credit Susan Cook
Yale Alum, Jane Ira Bloom returns to New Haven to preform.

A groundbreaking pioneer in the use of electronics and movement in jazz, Bloom leads her quartet, which features the noted bassist and fellow Yale grad Mark Helias, in concert at Sudler Recital Hall, located in Harkness Hall, 100 Wall Street, New Haven.

Bloom’s visually oriented often cinematic sounding music soars to imaginative, interstellar heights, perpetually modern and keenly cutting-edge. Yet, somehow, it is also simultaneously grounded in such now considered old-fashioned, even outré artistic virtues as unabashed, gorgeous beauty and hauntingly lyrical, poetic expression.

Bloom’s open-ended aesthetic and innovative use of light, motion, and painterly sonic shapes and forms have made her a catalytic collaborator with not only a host of jazz greats, but also with artists of all kinds. Her collaborators from diverse disciplines include the Native American painter and sculptor DanNamingha, the legendary dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, noted lighting designer James F. Ingalls, cartoonist/satirist Jules Feiffer, and the dark-humored comic Lewis Black.

Among the scholarly reams of analysis of Bloom’s nourishing streams of consciousness and evocative soliloquies, none has been more accurate or succinct than the savvy saxophonist’s own personal summation of what she’s been up to as a bringer of light to the world of jazz for the past three decades:

“Sometimes I throw sound around the band like paint, and other times I play and feel as if I were carving silence like a sculptor.”

Earlier at 4 p.m. on Saturday, February 21, Japanese-born trumpeter/flugelhornist/composer Takuya Kuroda, a much-heralded jazz/funkmeister and Blue Note recording artist, performs with his Afro-beat, jazz and soul powered band at Sudler Hall. Later at 8:00 pm on Saturday, the fit-for-battle trumpeter Joshua Bruneau makes the walls come tumbling down ashe jams with his septet atThe 9th Note, an art deco-themed bistro at 56 Orange Street. A graduate of The University of Hartford’s Hartt School where he studied with jazz master Jackie McLean, Bruneau has recorded with bassist Nat Reeves, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Larry Willis, and saxophonist Kris Jensen.

The festival gets underway at 8:00 pm on Friday, February 20, with alto saxophonist Matthew Clayton leading his quartet, featuring Brandon Smith, at the Saybrook Underbrook Theater, 242 Elm Street. The weekend jazz bash’s grand finale features bassist Stephan Crump (a key cog in pianist Vijay Iyer’s dynamo trio) leading his drumless, all-stringRosetta Trio, exhibiting its avant-garde, chamber music and folk-flavored art of improvisation at 3:00 pm on Sunday, February 22, at the jazz-friendly Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street.

Jazz Festival at Yale, already a signature winter jazz event in Connecticut, is solely the fine handiwork of student members of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective (YJC), an active jazz advocacy group on campus.

As with their two previous festivals in 2013 and 2014, the enterprising YJC students once again merit an A+ this year for their impressive hands-on skills at putting together such an ambitious, worthy venture. Check out the festival’s full schedule at yale.edu/jazzcollective/festival.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments left below are also most welcome.

Owen McNally writes the weekly Jazz Corridor column for WNPR.org as well as periodic freelance pieces for The Hartford Courant and other publications.

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