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Tucson Weekly Improvising Life

Jazz whiz Kevin Hays plays "From the Center."

By Dave Irwin

MAY 18, 1998:  IN A JAZZ improvisational context, you don't know what's going to happen," says pianist Kevin Hays. "You can sit home and practice, and say, 'Okay, I know how to do this and that.' But unless an improviser can really be in the moment and in tune to every little shift that's going on, it's not going to happen." Hays has learned how to be in the moment from legends like bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who play on his new album, Andalucia.

He's also played extensively with icons like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, John Scofield, and Joshua Redman, as well as being a member of the Blue Note All Stars. He was touring Europe at 19. Having just turned 30, he's already appeared on more than a dozen albums in Europe, Japan and the U.S. Hays' earlier solo albums favored larger ensembles. But Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall pushed him towards a trio format. "It's a scary little prospect for me to be that exposed," Hays admits. "I had recorded trio once before, with mixed results.

There's definitely a focal point at the piano. There's more responsibility on the one hand and yet there's more freedom." It didn't hurt that Carter and DeJohnette represent one of the strongest rhythm sections a young player could hope for. Hays acknowledges, "It was a wonderful experience. I came up listening to those guys play. Ron has such a strong presence. He can swing without even having a drummer. Other bass players may have good time and good sound, but Ron could swing through a nuclear war." However, Hays had not played with DeJohnette before the sessions. "You never know what's going to happen when you've never played with a particular musician before," he notes.

"You never quite know what the chemistry is going to be like until you get there. It really worked out beautifully. He's just a great musician. Sometimes when we talk about great musicians, we talk about technical prowess and neglect the elements that really make them great musicians, the ability to listen and respond, sensitivity to what's going on around yourself." For his Tucson gig, Hays will continue the trio format. Drummer Jeff Ballard is a veteran of the Ray Charles Band. Bassist Doug Weiss has toured with female jazz composer Toshiko Akiyoshi.

"Jeff's been around the scene for a while, and I've worked with Doug a lot over the years," Hays says. "I try to set the music up so that there's enough structure for things to hold together, but not be constraining." Hays explains, "For me, improvising is a process of building shapes, it's visual. It's the creation of new shapes, to be open to playing something that I haven't before and to wait until I have something in my mind's eye, or my mind's ear, before I play anything. So when something comes out, it will be from my center, as opposed to something that I've either already played out of habit or something that I think might be clever."

"There's a lot of listening going on in improvisation. It's almost like stealing ideas from the other guys in the band without playing exactly what they're playing. If I hear the drummer play a little rhythm, some musicians like to mirror that back. I prefer to take it and develop it."

"When you look at it this way, you kill two birds with one stone in the improvisation process. You have your ears open so you're responding to the other musicians, and instead of feeling like everything has to be generated from myself, you take from what's going on in the situation and throw your own clothes on it. That way, it's like a conversation, where you're developing something together. That's how I prefer to do it and I try to surround myself with musicians who feel the same way."

Hays' influences include Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson. "There have been a lot of people I've listened to, but fewer who I feel really close to," he admits. "I've learned so much from keeping my ears open, living in New York. There's always something that somebody's got their individual twist on."

Hays concedes, "It's very easy to get caught up in externals and career issues, agents and promoters, record companies, and that's all part of the business. But I've found that if I put music first, then those things tend to fall into place. They may not fall into place exactly how I'd like them to, but life is not here to cater to my needs or anyone else's.

"In terms of any large scheme, I just want to keep playing music and playing with creative musicians. It's just a matter of doing what I'm doing and that the next thing I'm supposed to be doing feels right."

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