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Kevin Hays (duo album with Bill Stewart : ‘American Ballad’)

“Kevin Hays is a true original,” Brad Mehldau has written. “Everything he plays has a deep intelligence and swing.” The New York-born pianist, composer and singer-songwriter is a mainstay of the scene in the city of his birth, and has also toured the world with James Taylor, Sonny Rollins, John Scofield, Joe Henderson, Roy Haynes…

He has just released an album, American Ballad, recorded in 2015, in a duo setting with drummer Bill Stewart. Interview by Sebastian Scotney

Kevin Hays and Bill Stewart. Photo credit: Vicente Archer

London Jazz News: There’s an elephant in the room here… this album was recorded in 2015, and is being released now. What’s behind the seven-year delay (and the seven-year itch to release?)

Kevin Hays: Ha! Indeed this was recorded in 2015 and sat ‘in the can’ (as we say). I’m not exactly sure why it took us this long to release it. One reason could be that we went into the studio with a ‘let’s see what happens’ attitude and I’m not sure either of us knew if it was anything until we started to revisit the sessions and heard that it was quite good and should be released. 

LJN: You and Bill Stewart are from the same generation, give or take a couple of years. Have you known each other for a long time?

KH: Yes, Bill and I have known each other since the early ‘nineties’90s and have played together often in a variety of contexts: in my trio, with his keyboard trio with Larry Goldings, with Seamus Blake, John Scofield, etc. We were even roommates in Brooklyn in those early years. Bill was on my first recording as a leader (El Matador with Joe Henderson, Scott Colley and Steve Wilson).  

LJN: And what do you admire about his music?

KH: There’s so much to say about Bill and his musicianship. Of course he is a superb drummer, but it’s his great ears that I don’t think people fully realise. He really listens and responds beautifully to whatever music is at hand. And of course his feel is great. 

LJN: What are the implications of the lack of a bass… harmonic freedom?

KH: Well in this context, since most of the music is improvised, yeah, I can go wherever I want with the harmony but also I can play with texture and form in a way that is different from a trio format. 

LJN: What do you remember of the circumstances of the recording?

KH: We gave ourselves a day in the studio. One of us would start with an idea and then the other would jump in and respond in the moment. The tracks just grew organically from these jumping off points.

LJN: Did anything unexpected happen? 

KH: It was mostly unexpected! The thing that surprised me is how Bill and I connected on music that had never existed before. Like moments on Walking Home where it sounds like we were reading from the same sheet of music. Stopping and starting phrases together, etc.  

LJN: Are these improvisations just one-offs or have any of them led to anything (The thought here is that The Cold Man, to me, sounds like a ‘tune’ with a shape rather than an improvisation…)

KH: At this point they are one-off improvisations but I have had the thought of transcribing a few of them and turning them into tunes that could be played again and explored further.

LJN: Does the album title American Ballad imply a certain sense of heritage?

KH: The album title takes its name from the song which we improvised (named after the fact). To me the piece has a kind of melancholy and unresolved feeling, and, yes, somehow an Americana beauty, maybe with the addition of some unease. It seemed appropriate to this place… both historically, and where we find ourselves now in this country. 

LJN: This feels like a very accessible melodic album, maybe even surprisingly so. Was there a plan to make a particular kind of album, or did it just happen?

KH: I’m so happy you feel that way! I do too. When one thinks of an improvised piano and drum album, thoughts of the avant-garde may come to mind and ‘free jazz’ in the chaotic ‘let’s see how weird we can be’ sense. And as much as I enjoy playing free and ‘out’, at heart I’m a melody guy, and I think Bill would say the same about himself. There was no real plan to make any particular type of music/album. Just to play together and make music that sounded good to us. It’s not really that different from my open approach to playing standards or other tunes. We’re using our same musical sensibilities. 

LJN: The first track, Nebula, is a tune by Bill Stewart. Where does it come from?

KH: It come from the genius of Bill Stewart’s mind! Bill is an excellent piano player as well and he has a unique harmonic sense. I think this song reflects that wonderful aspect of his musical world. 

LJN: Is the source of the Annette Peacock tune The Archangel The Paul Bley Synthesizer Show? What drew you to both to this tune? 

KH: If I recall correctly I believe Scott Colley introduced me to this song. I heard Paul’s version only after we recorded ours (and love how he approached it). I just found the piece to be beautiful and brought it into the studio for us to try. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out! 

LINK: American Ballad on Bandcamp

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