Fall is a special time of year. The carefree vibrations of summer slow to a meditative pace allowing healing and regrouping to begin. For pianist Bill Mays, fall gives him a feeling of spiritual rebirth along with time for introspection and reflection. Mays has dedicated his heartfelt new recording, Autumn Serenade, to the season.
Mays has long been regarded as a musician’s musician among jazz cognoscenti. For 15 years, he worked in the studios of Hollywood and with the West Coast’s leading musicians, from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. Mays moved to the East Coast in 1984 to focus on his jazz playing, becoming a fixture on the New York scene, including long stints with Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods.
The trio has been Mays’s go to ensemble for many years. He presented three albums on Palmetto with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson. Later, Mays established his intriguing Inventions Trio with trumpeter Marvin Stamm and cellist Alisa Horn. For his 40th recording as a leader, Mays recruited two musicians with whom he has shared more than 35 years of musical experience: bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Ron Vincent.
Mays on the trio: “We have a real spiritual connection, born of many varied musical situations and off-the-bandstand friendships. They’ve been there for me when I was going through some dark times. I value their deep musicality, attention to detail, technical perfection, and the ability to not just play their instruments, but to color and ‘co-arrange’ with me to help shape the direction of each piece.”
During the pandemic, Mays composed quite a bit of music and reached out to Johnson and Vincent, reigniting their creative spark and furthering their rapport. Mays began to consider recording an album of pieces about autumn. The vast repository of jazz standards contains a multitude of songs that focus on the season and Mays and his trio created a master list to cull from.
The pianist has been a regular accompanist for many well-known vocalists, a pursuit that he has enjoyed immensely. On a Morgana King session, Mays was teaching the beloved singer the verse of a song by singing to her. She insisted that he join her on the tune and that became his singing debut. Further encouraged by friends Jimmy Rowles, Red Mitchell, and Bob Dorough, Mays continued to build up his vocal chops; he includes a number of vocal pieces amongst his repertory, including two on Autumn Serenade.
Once the Mays trio had decided on their program, they descended upon engineer Matt Balitsaris’s Maggie’s Farm studio in late July 2022.
The program begins with an introspective take on Sammy Gallop and Peter De Rose’s “Autumn Serenade.” The open, mystical piece was made famous by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s iconic recording. On the brightly swinging “Autumn with Vivaldi,” Mays incorporates a melodic theme from the legendary composer’s The Four Seasons and adds a bridge. Wayne Shorter’s “Fall” has been a longtime favorite of Mays’s, and here his trio perform the piece in a natural, conversational way. Bernice Petkere’s “Lullaby of the Leaves” was a perennial favorite of Jimmy Rowles’s; Mays and company give the piece a playful makeover.
Mays’s “Still Life” is a gorgeous ballad that was inspired by one of his wife’s watercolor paintings. Mays features his musical voice and his impeccable phrasing on a solo version of Henry Nemo’s “’Tis Autumn.” Ralph Burns and Woody Herman’s “Early Autumn” is a dynamic and stately midtempo ode with driving drums by Vincent. Mays segues Bob James’s and composer Josef Myrow’s two different songs with the same name on “Autumn Nocturne.” The program concludes with a medley of David Shire and Richard Maltby’s “Autumn” and Barry Manilow and Johnny Mercer’s “When October Goes,” the former featuring vocals by Judy Kirtley and Mays and Kirtley on the latter with his own digital orchestration and Balitsaris’s bossa infused guitar.
Thoughts of autumn usually imagine changing leaves, cooler temperatures, and a meditative hush. The music that Bill Mays and his trio have compiled for Autumn Serenade proves to be a perfect soundtrack for this contemplative season.
released February 17, 2023
Bill Mays - piano, vocal (6 & 9), Logic digital orchestra
Dean Johnson - contrabass (all except 6)
Ron Vincent - drums (all except 6)
Judy Kirtley - vocal (9)
Matt Balitsaris - acoustic guitar (9)