Louis Hayes is all about sound and motion

By Louis Erlanger

Louis Erlanger is a professional guitarist and software designer, and is active in the Brattleboro, VT music community. He hosts two music radio shows on which he interviews local and internationally known musicians: After Hours on WOOL 91.5 FM in Bellows Falls Vermont, Sundays from 8-10 PM EST, streaming at http://wool.fm, and Blue Monday on WVEW 107.7 FM in Brattleboro, Vermont, Mondays from 6-8 PM EST, streaming at http://www.wvew.org. His software company website is http://erlangerdigital.com/

When I was in my twenties I played guitar with a Japanese blues singer named Toru Oki. Toru was well-known in Japan and this enabled him to hire a large revue to back him up. One of the sax players in that revue was Gerald Hayes, brother of jazz drummer Louis Hayes. Gerald was a great player, but he stood out as much for his relentless sense of humor that kept the band laughing between shows.

I mention this because meeting him was the beginning of my musical investigation into Louis Hayes. I’d heard Louis’ name mentioned on countless jazz radio shows, but it wasn’t until meeting Gerald that I started checking out LP liner notes, where I learned of all the great people Louis accompanied – Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Phil Woods, Kenny Burrell, and more. I also learned that Hayes was a protégé of Papa Jo Jones, a magician of a drummer whom I was lucky enough to see almost every week at the West End Bar on upper Broadway in New York City, across the street from my college dormitory. So I got into Louis Hayes. I saw Louis play once before I knew much about him, but I haven’t seen him live since. That is why when I saw his name on the 2012-2013 Vermont Jazz Center schedule I was excited.

Unfortunately, the day of the show I was not in good physical condition. Recovering from a cold, I felt like my brain was suspended in gelatin and my ears were covered in cellophane. No doubt the show would attract a large crowd, and this would mean the Jazz Center would be warm and the seating would be tight – not the best atmosphere for someone who could barely keep his head up in thirty degree weather.

These concerns went out the window with the first tune. Louis Hayes is all about sound and motion, and it is perpetual motion, both physical and musical. No heat or crowd size can mute the effect of the Hayes train. Already a few years into his seventies, Hayes plays with the vigor of a teenager. His limbs move economically, as if drawing energy from his torso, but when his sticks meet the drums, watch out. They are everywhere, accenting changes, creating tone colorations, swinging the ride cymbal, pumping the bass drum.

Hayes brought with him a young four piece group: Jason Curry on alto saxophone, Toru Dodo on piano, and Alex Claffy on bass. I would guess if you averaged their ages the number could be as low as 24 or 25. As I understand it, they had not played together much before this show, although each of them has had years of experience working with top names. Sharply dressed in suits, ties, and pocket handkerchiefs, except for Hayes who sported a tight black T-shirt and aviator glasses, they started off with a bang, launching into an upbeat groove that immediately set the pace of the show. Jason Curry, a handsome young man who, in his gray pinstriped suit and closely cut afro could have played Sam Cooke in a biopic, started working the alto slowly, leaving wide open spaces, and then gradually picked up the pace until he was soon riding even with Hayes’ churning drums. When it was Toru Dodo’s turn to solo, he came out with all cylinders burning. A driving, imaginative and exciting piano player, Dodo built a solo that left one yearning to hear more. He is surely a talent to watch.

On the next tune it became evident that Louis shares his brother’s sense of humor. Announcing that the tune they were about to play, “High Fly”, was written by Randy Weston, Hayes explained that Randy Weston is 6’7″ tall, and therefore “has a high fly”. They played a smoking version of this well-known tune, and then Hayes immediately went into a drum solo. It was here that he showed off his incredible command of time, timbre and coloration, creating beautiful, luscious sheets of sound and rhythm. The drums are more than just a rhythm instrument in Louis Hayes’ hands. As much as is possible with a percussion instrument, he coaxes melody and harmony along with his rhythm.

The group showed another side of themselves on the ballad “My One And Only Love”. While Curry and Dodo played soaring lyrical solos, Claffy and Hayes weaved an interlocking web of shifting time and accents, creating its own subtext that coaxed your attention back and forth between the solos and the rhythm section.

A smoking Hayes solo ended the first set and an excited audience headed out to the lounge for intermission. While checking out Louis Hayes’ CDs, buying drinks, and eating pastries I heard people commenting about how much they were enjoying the show, how amazing it was to have such a fine group in Brattleboro, and expressing disbelief that Hayes was mesmerizing them “while only playing standards”. That last comment is probably the highest praise, coming from folks who generally like their jazz more “outside”.

Hayes kicked off the second set with “Jeannine”, a tune he had recorded with Cannonball Adderley. He began it with a drum solo using only the cymbals, making them ring out with a crystal tone. Then he broke into a swinging groove that had the whole audience moving. He kicked off the second tune, “You Stepped Out of A Dream”, in a similar fashion, this time with a train rhythm on the hi hat. After some fine solos from Curry, Dodo, and Claffy, Hayes wrapped up the tune with the same train beat, but this time on the rim of the snare, gradually fading out. Looking up from the drums as he was fading, he got the same sly look in his eye that his brother often got and confided to the audience “We make it up as we go along.”

The highlight of the show was a breakdown in the tune “My Shining Hour”. The drums and piano suddenly dropped out completely, leaving Curry and Claffy playing furiously against each other on alto and bass. This lasted for some time, and a completely new texture was created, causing the air around the music to contract. When Hayes and Dodo finally came back in, the air expanded again, as if someone had spliced it back on to the tune. Hayes ended the show with a swinging Adderley tune, and after leaving the audience breathless, imparted this closing piece of philosophy: “Hope you enjoyed the show, and enjoy your life, as things are downhill anyway.”

On that note a laughing audience, appreciating that they were on the peak of a downhill ride, headed for the door. It was a great evening, and in the uplifted mood in which I found myself, nose dry, head and ears cleared – great music will cure anyone’s ills — I decided to stop into the office and say hello to Louis and the band. I thanked them for the great music and told Louis how I had worked years ago with his brother in Toru Oki’s group. “Toru Oki!” Louis exclaimed. “Yellow blues!” As it turned out, Louis and Toru had hung out together quite a bit in New York, going around to night clubs. “A fine, interesting cat” is how Louis described him. So we chatted a bit and then I said goodbye and left. A couple of days later Eugene Uman, the Jazz Center’s director, told me that he and Hayes had hung out and had drinks later that evening and Hayes told him many stories – firsthand accounts of working with jazz legends. I wish I had been there, but I guess that’s material for Eugene’s next blog.

Before I go, let me just say a couple of other things. First of all, The Vermont Jazz Center was one of the deciding factors when I was considering moving to Brattleboro from New York City over seven years ago. Its existence told me that even though I’d be hundreds of miles from my New York City music haunts, there would still be great music available. It has turned out to be even better than I expected, a community of musicians and music lovers dedicated to presenting, learning and teaching the music we all love. So hats off to Eugene, Howard Brofsky, Atilla Zoller, and everyone else who has been involved. Second, don’t miss the next concert, The Vermont Jazz Center Big Band with Houston Person on Friday, Dec. 7 at 8 PM. Houston Person and the late jazz singer Etta Jones had a regular gig in New York City, and I can tell you, that big fat saxophone sound is something to behold. So get your tickets now.