Kevin Hays – ‘New Day’

Kevin Hays’ excellent new release New Day finds the pianist in a very melodic zone, surrounded by musicians from a singer-songwriter tradition while keeping his jazz bona fides very much intact. Hays is joined by Rob Jost and Greg Joseph on bass and drums on all of the songs here. Gregoire Maret adds his harmonica and Tony Scherr adds his guitar to quite a few of the tunes as well.

Hays’ knowledge of jazz harmony can sometimes seem to spill out of him at the keyboard when in a strictly “jazz” setting, with complex cascading lines that sometimes let the melody get a bit out of pocket. Here, Hays lends his vocals to four of the tunes and adds wordless vocal lines to several others. This, presumably along with the presence of the other musicians on this album, keeps the melody front and center – which is not to ignore the great grooves that this band puts together. The album’s opener and perhaps best track is an instrumental version of “Run to the Sun”. The press kit helpfully tells us that it’s a blues in an 11/8 meter – count along and sure enough, there it is. But that’s not the point. Hays’ trio is riding this soulful groove and absolutely killing it. Don’t bother counting beats, the band is on fire. Other highlights include the title track, with Hays providing vocals and Maret providing a fantastic harmonica solo, and “Milton,” with a wordless vocal line, a great groove in tribute to Brazilian musician Milton Nascimiento, and fantastic piano soloing from Hays.

The album’s only misstep is “Waltz for Wollesen”, a saloon-ish little track that is pleasant enough, but derails some of the album’s momentum. Move past that one and continue through the end of the album to a vocal version of “Run to the Sun”, which has a very different feel from the instrumental that opened the album while riding that same groove. This may be Hays’ strongest vocal on the album (he sings on four tunes here), which is not to deride his singing on any of the others. Hays is not the strongest singer out there, but his singing on all of the songs here is entirely in service to the music and the album is stronger for it.

Kevin Hays’ New Day Trio featuring Gregoire Maret plays the Jazz Standard on July 1 in New York City, then plays five shows in early September in Europe.