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Kevin Hays to Blaze and Amaze in Warm Celebration of New CD at Firehouse 12

Nov 15, 2016

Whether he invents on classical or blues themes seems to make little difference to Hays.

Returning to the art of the acoustic piano trio, Kevin Hays is celebrating the release of his new, right on the mark album North, which his website proclaims focuses on “history, beauty, and hope.”

While those three artistic ideals might sound like the dreamy aesthetic of a 19th century romantic poet, Hays -- a 21st century pragmatic poet with a true sense of direction -- and his New Day Trio sidekicks -- the remarkable bassist Rob Jost and drummer Greg Joseph, live up to their quest for all three of these wholly worthy artistic goals or personal holy grails.

Besides evoking the trinity of “history, beauty and hope,” the trio revels in traveling smoothly in multiple musical directions. Its bold path reflects the pianist/composer’s genre-crossing passion for jazz, classic blues, classical music, soul, folk, rock, and folk rock.

The bright new CD, on the aptly named Sunnyside Records, also shines light on Hays’s scintillating gift for thematic improvisation, fluent phrasing, sparkling tone, and lucid articulation, plus his smooth prestidigitation with time signatures and smart, luminous harmonic surprises.

More than likely, Hays will dip into the diverse repertoire on his just released disc as he leads his trio on Friday, November 18, in sessions at 8:30 and 10:00 pm at New Haven’s Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street.

Along with original compositions, the new disc also features the pianist’s no less original, exploratory arrangements — punningly referred to by him as “derangements” — of venerable pieces ranging from bebop king Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” to folk and blues legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep?”

Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

For the Firehouse 12 sessions, Hays will be accompanied by bassist Ben Street and drummer Greg Joseph, a much-in-demand player who’s worked with artists ranging from Steve Kuhn and Madeleine Peyroux to Paul Anka and Art Garfunkel.

North is the sequel to the pianist/composer’s 2015 release on Sunnyside simply called New Day, a disc that showcases him as a multi-faceted singer/songwriter, a bit apart from his reputation as one of the great acoustic piano players of his generation.

So here’s Hays, master of the jazz piano trio format, cutting it on "New Day" as a funky, folk-rock vocalist with a pleasant voice, a singer/songwriter who also plays piano, a Fender Rhodes, and a Wurlitzer, quite cozy nestled among often blues-drenched or folk/rock grooves on tunes and lyrics of his own making.

Adding to the core of Hays’s New Day Trio are his special guests Tony Scherr on electric and acoustic guitar and, most invaluably, the brilliant Gregoire Maret on harmonica. Maret’s great blues harp solos perfectly complement Hays’s gritty vocals.

The funk-flavored spirituality of the CD's title tune, “New Day,” is a celebration of new beginnings, accented by Maret’s warm choruses, which are as earthy and poignant as Toots Thielemans’s blues and ballad reflections.

As part of a handful of original homage pieces, Hays pays tribute on “Milton” to the great Brazilian composer Milton Nascimento, a selection graced with acoustic piano passages that would fit right in on the pure piano trio pieces on North. Here and elsewhere there are crisp contributions from Maret, Hays’s soulful alter ego on harmonica.

On his tune “Sugar Man,” Hays demonstrates his Rhodes scholarship, apparently always as much at home plugged-in as unplugged, electrifying with either option.

With his original, charmingly wacky “Waltz for Wollesen,” Hays even gets to show his sense of humor with his old-timey, saloon style piano playing romping on as fragmented bits of conversation natter away in the background, much like the surreal sound effects used so effectively by the late ‘60s and ‘70s cutting-edge comedy troupe, The Firesign Theatre.

On North, his new piano trio album, the improvising pianist immediately takes flight on Bird’s “Scrapple from the Apple,” a short but kaleidoscopic piece. Spiking the vintage scrapple up a bit, he utilizes one of his signature techniques to modulate the melody up a half-step after every two bars and then reharmonize.

As part of his creative renewal projects on North, he recreates and retailors such evergreens as “All the Things You Are,” retitled here “All Things Are,” and “I’ll Remember April,’’ which, swinging in 6/8 time, proves that April is the coolest, not the cruelest month.

There are tasteful examples of Hays’s lyrical playing as on the moody, classical sounding “Elegia.” Shimmering with ideas, it’s punctuated with his periodic contrapuntal conversations with himself, with polyphony popping up in all the right places.

“North,” the title tune, which has much to do with spiritual elements, the geography of one’s state of mind and the discovering of one’s true north, is a probing piece. Although its inspiration is philosophical, its execution basks in enviably pristine simplicity and lyrical expression.

“Violetta,” a dancing, celebratory piece in 5/4 time, is a tribute to the neuva cancion singer Violetta Parra with Jost, master of the musical mot juste, joining in on ukulele -- which, against all reason, fits here perfectly.

Although it’s not the Neil Diamond mega-hit, Hays’s “Sweet Caroline” is a soulful gem of a showcase for Jost’s double-jointed, double bass virtuosity.

Whether he invents on classical or blues themes seems to make little difference to Hays. He works his strategic mix of new arrangement and invention on such disparate pieces as “Schumann’s Chamisso,” spinning fresh ideas on a movement from a Robert Schumann song cycle, to his hip hallelujahs on the aforementioned Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep?”

Give Hays an inch of thematic material, and, creatively, he’ll take a mile on his bold journeys, using his inbuilt personal compass, set on true North. On his latest CD’s grand finale “Morning,” he traverses all 12 keys riding on a melody that takes him down yet another unexplored, promising road on yet another dawning of a new day.

Tickets for the Firehouse 12 shows: $20, first set; $10, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Final Note

Today’s Jazz Corridor marks the column’s final appearance. I want to thank readers for their support and encouragement over the past three years, helping to make it a really enjoyable run for me with WNPR. I’d also like to thank my colleagues at WNPR, particularly digital content editor Heather Brandon and digital producer Tucker Ives. I’ll continue writing features about arts and entertainment elsewhere, and hope we’ll connect again.

Best wishes to all, Owen McNally