The word "home" is one of the most highly-charged in the English language, evoking a range of emotions from trepidation to nostalgia, based on the past circumstances of the person hearing it. Pianist Bill Mays toys with this notion on his new Palmetto release, a thematic rumination on the power of homecoming; it follows 2001’s seasonal suite, Summer Sketches. All eleven tracks are in some way related to the coming-and-going patterns of homebuilding, be it a sense of relaxed return, anxious separation, or anticipated movement. In the process, Mays - with trio mates Martin Wind on bass and Matt Wilson on drums - makes a thoughtful statement on the ambiguous, elusive nature of "home," the perpetual instinct to nestle no matter how many obstacles interrupt those efforts.
That this issue should weigh heavily on a road-weary musician’s mind is no surprise. What is impressive, however, is the accomplished way in which this trio builds a musical home flexible enough yet centered enough to engage all the different sides of the subject. They do this primarily by centering their various types of musical explorations around the most fundamental of jazz gestures - the "home base" of insouciant groove, also known as swing. This is evident from the first few moments of the opening "Judy," a Mays original named for his wife. Perhaps like its namesake, Wilson provides a cunning, open-ended pattern which allows Mays and Wind to formulate a sly game of sonic tag. What starts as the simple call and response figures of the theme (actually a left hand and bass unison line, adding sneaky dynamics) gives way to a rolling counterpoint, pulls back to a true, echoed call and response, and grows organically to a climax at the three and a half minute mark, where a tasty triplet figure by Wind spurs Mays into a stunning half-chorus of fragmented rhythm and hanging melodies. The point of which being that no matter how complex the machine’s parts, it whirrs with the relaxed chug of musical domestication - three homeboys listening, interjecting, and effortlessly gelling.
These moments are frequent and give voice to deep roots, giving the lie to a jazz hype machine that repeatedly over-praises and overlooks (see the critics’ consensus on The Bad Plus, for instance). If Mays’ singing on the closing "I’m a Homebody" is more cute than critical, it is the rarity on an album that takes on originals and standards, up tempo burners and slow ballads with equal relish, engaging them all with a relaxed, lived-in feel that refuses gimmicks and demands sincere abandon. Perhaps there is no clearer example of this than the back-to-back midpoint of the program, Mays’ "On the Road" followed by his "Shoho Love Song," referring to the corner of Pennsylvania the pianist claims as his own. The former is a dazzling display of three-part virtuosity, a down and dirty composition in which Wind’s fleet ostinatos, heavy double stops, and anticipatory walking figures provide a headlong momentum. In the latter, however, Mays’ romantic imagination lets loose, in an almost hovering, impressionistic example of ballad writing rarely seen in modern jazz. All of which is to say that in the first they loosen up enough and in the second they flex enough muscle to avoid both showmanship and syrupy sentimentality - all an offshoot of the trio’s profound level of interaction.
This disc makes it clear that Mays has been both itinerant enough and found enough appealing stops along the way to understand the expanding and contracting that occurs in building new homes and then leaving them behind. The true joy for listeners lies in the evidence that he has found a semi-permanent home away from home - with Wind and Wilson he has enough dialogue, relaxation, and challenge to build on that feeling for years to come. Any group with enough range to take on Bob Dorough’s "Comin’ Home Baby" in the same deep breath as Dvorak’s "Going Home" from the New World Symphony has clearly cast a wide enough net to create the comforts of home no matter where their travels take them.