Joe Beck and Bill Mays have emerged as real players.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
It was a well-known occupational hazard for jazz artists, a soul destroying scourge that led some of the music’s greatest figures to drop out of sight while they handled their addiction. No, I’m not talking about dope. It was the siren call of the studios, which provided several generations of jazz players with the intensely habit-forming high of making a good, steady living.
The honor roll of players who spent some of their prime years recording commercial jingles, movie scores, television soundtracks and pop sessions in Los Angeles and New York City studios includes bassist Milt Hinton, pianist Hank Jones, drummer Larry Bunker, trumpeter Joe Wilder, and altoist Bud Shank.
Two players performing on the Peninsula this week are latter-day refugees from the studios, musicians who, after spending decades as first-call session cats, reestablished themselves as world-class jazz artists in middle age.
Guitarist Joe Beck, no stranger to the region through his frequent appearances with flutist Ali Ryerson, performs at the Monterey Hyatt Thursday through Saturday as a special guest with house drummer David Morwood. Tonight they’re joined by veteran bassist Stan Poplin. On Friday, bassist Dan Robbins completes the trio. And on Saturday, Yugoslav-born bassist Buca Necak and saxophonist (and local hero) Paul Contos round out the quartet.
Bill Mays, one of jazz’s most creative pianists, makes a rare Peninsula appearance on Saturday at the Jazz & Blues Company with his extraordinary trio featuring bassist Martin Wind and the infinitely inventive drummer Matt Wilson. Born in Sacramento, Mays got hooked on jazz as a high school student in the East Bay town of Lafayette when he caught a solo gig by the legendary pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. One of jazz’s most influential musicians from the 1920s through the ’40s, Hines was largely forgotten when Mays saw him in 1960, though his keyboard prowess was undiminished (indeed, five years later he was rediscovered and spent the rest of his career as a revered elder).
“The way he played the whole keyboard is one of the things that grabbed me,” says Mays, 62. “He was really a two-fisted player. His uncanny rhythmic sense really made an impression. He also had an unorthodox way of playing left hand, his own sense of stride. It was a pivotal point for me.”
Mays settled in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s and quickly insinuated himself into the Southland’s vital jazz scene, working with veterans such as Shank, Buddy Collette, Harold Land, Shelly Manne and Art Pepper. He studied the art of accompaniment by watching pianist Jimmy Rowles, and spent 18 months backing incomparable jazz singer Sarah Vaughan in a rhythm section with drummer Jimmy Cobb.
“It was on that gig that I learned to get over my fear of playing very, very slow tempos,” Mays says. “She would kick off something like ‘Stairway to the Stars’ and it would be slower than I ever thought of playing. Jimmy Cobb was so helpful. He said, ‘Look, don’t worry about it, just subdivide the beat.’”
At the same time Mays was establishing himself as one of the most versatile pianists on the LA studio scene, playing on hundreds of sessions. He finally got around to recording his own albums in his late 30s, though he was still largely unknown outside of Southern California. By the mid-’80s, studio work was changing, as keyboards and synthesizers replaced piano, and a generation of jazz savvy composers like Lalo Shiffrin, Jerry Goldsmith and Henry Mancini gave way to a new breed. Mays decided to give up the lucrative studio scene and pursue his longtime ambition of playing jazz in New York.
He landed his first Gotham gig with baritone saxophone great Gerry Mulligan and joined the Monday night big band at the Village Vanguard. Before long he was one of the busier players in town, making albums with jazz greats such as Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Clark Terry, and Toots Thielemans. With a series of excellent recordings as a leader for Concord and more recently Palmetto, he has become a player widely cherished but still too little known.
Guitarist Joe Beck is a similarly versatile player, but his name will be forever linked to one of jazz’s greatest stars, Miles Davis. An established New York City player by 18, Beck began accompanying luminaries like Stan Getz, Charles Lloyd and Paul Winter in the mid-1960s. He absorbed the rhythmic intricacies of bossa nova right from the source, Joao Gilberto. And on the recommendation of Gil Evans he became Miles Davis’s first guitarist, joining the trumpeter’s great 1960s quintet in early 1968.
As the house guitarist and arranger at Creed Taylor’s CTI and Kudu labels, Beck was at the forefront of jazz/rock fusion movement’s crossover success in the 1970s, producing and arranging singer Esther Phillips’ monster hit “What a Difference a Day Makes.”
“That was one session out of 15 that week,” Beck says. “That hit and the other 14 didn’t. Any studio guy will tell you the sessions where he played the best were never heard.”
Fortunately, Beck’s best work as a jazz player is readily available, whenever he takes the bandstand.
JOE BECK PLAYS THE HYATT REGENCY, 1 OLD GOLF COURSE RD. IN MONTEREY, THURSDAY THROUGH SATURDAY AT 6PM. ADMISSION IS FREE, 625-0735. BILL MAYS PLAYS THE JAZZ & BLUES CO., 5TH AND SAN CARLOS IN CARMEL, SATURDAY AT 7:30PM. TICKETS ARE $40, 624-6432.