(Bill Mays, piano; Marvin Stamm, trumpet & Flugelhorn; Alisa Horn, cello)
When I read that leading pianist Bill Mays’ new group was created to explore the intersection of chamber music and jazz I was immediately interested. He is one of the few jazz artists who sometimes includes classical repertory into a jazz context – in common with people such as Roger Kellaway’s Cello Quartet, jazz cellists such as Oscar Pettiford and Fred Katz, and going back to the Swing Era – the many big bands and groups like John Kirby’s which often played classical themes.
In the 1970s Mays was asked by jazz flutist Bud Shank to write a five-movement flute suite, which he did. (Odd that Shank now wants nothing to do with the flute anymore, calling his old group with Laurindo Almeida “The LA Snore.”) In the 1980s Mays did a jazz arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite – which Ellington had also done earlier. He’s also written sax quartets, works for the Aureole chamber ensemble, and scores for numerous TV shows and films. Trumpeter Stamm appears as soloist with symphony orchestras and as a member of the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. Cellist Horn’s entire background until recently was entirely in the classical world. She played in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and as principal cello in the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. She reveals in the album’s note booklet how scary it was for a classically-trained musician to face improvisation. Horn was sure she played notes wrongly until her compatriots assured her there was really no specific wrong or right.
This is a rather unusual makeup for a trio playing any sort of music, but it works beautifully – might I even say inventingly? – on the nine tracks. The Rachmaninov Vocalise has been transcribed dozens of different ways – in fact there is an RCA Red Seal CD compiling a bunch of them. The Trio’s version is one of the finest I’ve heard. Gershwin’s Second Prelude for Piano has also come in for some unusual transcriptions, and the Trio’s is highly successful here. Other delights are the Scriabin Prelude and Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair. May’s own extended Fantasy – the disc’s title tune – mixes the two genres with great skill and reminded me in some parts of Claude Bolling’s chamber-jazz Suites. On the strength of this their first album, I’d say that both Stamm and Horn have gotten the hang of jazz improvisation just fine.
TrackList: Baubles, Bangles, and Beads; Vocalise; Fantasy (3 movements); Prelude No. 2; Prelude Op. 11 #3/Sometime Ago; The Girl With the Flaxen Hair; Invention No. 8/Ah-Leu-Cha.
– John Sunier