Having lived in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem for five years, pianist Kevin Hays couldn't escape the vibrations of the historic neighborhood. He was reminded of the deep musical history of Harlem when he photographed a wall that was uncovered in the midst of the City's continuous redevelopment. The wall was festooned with concert posters from decades past, an image Hays interpolated for the cover of his new recording, North.
In New York City, Harlem is considered North. Hays isn't the only pianist to find a special meaning in the top of the compass. Glenn Gould made a well-known documentary about the tundra of Canada and his fascination with it in the late 1960s entitled The Idea of North. There is something in these latitudes that Hays finds compelling, not only for historical reasons, but for emotional and spiritual reasons, as well. Hays relates a feeling of calm that came from his prior residence in Upstate New York, a place of beauty and repose; the album title also references finding one's true North on one's spiritual compass.
It has been some time since Hays recorded an acoustic piano trio. Over the past few years, Hays has become reacquainted with former roommate, and terrific drummer, Greg Joseph. Through Joseph, he met bassist Rob Jost, a player of wide taste and tremendous ability. This led to Hays forming his New Day Trio, a dynamic ensemble that can handle the leader's challenging jazz charts and his more folk/rock leaning vocal pieces.
The Trio's last recording, New Day, featured pieces that Hays wrote with lyrics and showcased his wonderful voice. On their follow up recording, the Trio approaches the material instrumentally, though the material doesn't lack lyrical content. For Hays, his writing has begun to have a "thinning membrane between lyrics and melodies." As a sort of quality control, Hays sings while composing, insuring that his phrasing is lyrical. From there, he can go back and add challenging harmonic puzzles underneath, which makes his tunes deceptively difficult.
The pieces recorded on North focus on these elements of history, beauty and hope. Hays's musical scope goes beyond the jazz standards he incorporates on the record, bridging his love of classical, blues, soul, folk and rock music into his originals.
The recording begins with a "derangement" of Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," the Trio utilizing a favorite technique of Hays to modulate the melody up a half step after every two bars and then reharmonize. Hays recorded "Elegia" on an earlier record with Brad Mehldau, revisiting his lovely ballad, which was written as challenge to write a song in under an hour. "Violetta" is a tribute to Chilean nueva cancíon singer Violeta Parra; it captures a South American folk feel in 5/4 time.
"Schumann's Chamisso" is an arrangement of the first movement of the legendary composer's song cycle based on poet Adelbert von Chamisso's Frauenliebe und leben. Differing completely, the grooving "Sweet Caroline" is not by Neil Diamond but was written as a song with lyrics and features some wonderful bass work by Jost. An impressionistic rendition of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" leads to dramatic reworking of "All The Things You Are."
The title track "North" was written to portray a sense of peacefulness and solitude, feelings Hays relates to Upstate New York and that help him ground himself. A spontaneous take of Johnston and Raye's "I'll Remember April" is an intriguing arrangement in 6/8. The recording concludes with the uplifting "Morning," another short form piece written with lyrics and that traverses all 12 keys under a tuneful, free melody.
Kevin Hays is a musician who has been seeking a higher ground, both literally and figuratively. The creation of the New Day Trio and their work together have been inspiring and humbling for Hays. The new recording North sheds a light on the direction of Hays and The New Day Trio and it looks as if all roads lead....