It’s springtime in Baltimore, and our beloved hometown stirs to life after a long winter slumber. This spring feels more special than most, and as we continue to move forward into a semblance of normalcy, we realize just how much we have missed live music and the synergy it creates. Concerts are back, rehearsals are in full swing, and jam sessions are being born.
One of the newest sessions in town is hosted by drummer Brendan Brady on Sunday nights at Bar 1801 in Upper Fells Point. Brady consistently assembles a first-rate rhythm section to join him at this friendly corner establishment, and it only takes about three seconds of taking in the scene to realize why word has spread so quickly. A staple of the group’s rhythm sections has been pianist Hannah Mayer, playing on the house Fender Rhodes, ably supporting the music around her in a myriad of ways. I caught up with her after a session in early April, the energy of the night still reverberating in the dozens of musicians who stuck around to the end for every last note.
Mayer, a sophomore at the Peabody Institute, is no stranger to jazz and the broader spectrum of popular music. A native of the San Francisco Bay area, she credits her early growth to holistic instruction catered to her musical interests from the young age of five or six. “My teacher encouraged me to learn about chords, had me singing the songs as I was playing them, and still covered the fundamentals of music reading and piano technique,” she recalls with a smile. “It was a good fit and really worked for me.” In sixth grade, Mayer enrolled at the Oakland School for the Arts, where she thrived through the end of high school.
Her interest in jazz blossomed, and she began to discover and immerse herself in the music of the greats. “So many musicians have influenced me,” she says. “I love Cedar Walton, Wynton Kelley, Bud Powell, Hank Jones…there’s an endless number to choose from.” By the time she packed her bags for Baltimore, she had been a member of Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz, the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars, and the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Women in Jazz Combo. With a background like this, it’s no surprise that she is making a splash around town.
The few times I’ve heard Mayer play at the Bar 1801 session, I’ve been struck by her aural awareness of the others on the bandstand. She hears so much of what was going on around her, and there is a probing confidence to the harmonic and rhythmic support she gives throughout the night. Mayer has a wonderful collaborative instinct, striking the delicate balance between proactivity and reactivity in both her comping and soloing. Her fellow musicians agree. Drummer Brendan Brady says that “From the start, Hannah and I bonded over always wanting to play the same repertoire. Her playing is deeply rooted in language, and is always so interesting both rhythmically and harmonically.” Bassist Jeff Reed readily concurred, saying that Mayer “…does a phenomenal job of leading the group while listening to everything that’s going on around her and interacting at a very high level.”
My conversation with her turned towards the nuts and bolts of musical growth. “I’m always thinking of fresh and unexpected ways to connect chords,” she quickly said when conversation turned to practicing. “It’s always been interesting for me, moving harmonies around and coming up with new approaches. I’m also always working on and thinking about time.” It’s clear to anyone who has heard her just how much that work has paid off.
Mayer also gives heartfelt credit to her theater influences and how central they have been to her growth. “I love theater, too…Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, so many others…” As a high school student, Mayer wrote a 30-minute musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day,” and she hopes to write more for the theater over time. Most jazz musicians know just how strongly intertwined jazz and theater are, and it should come as no surprise when someone operates and thrives in both worlds.
As for the future? “The first goal is to finish school!” she says with a laugh. “After that, I don’t know yet. I love Baltimore, and this city has been an incredible fit for me so far…but I’m also curious about New York and its jazz and theater world. I want to play gigs, I want to write, there’s lots of things I’m interested in. I want to keep growing and learn as much as I can.”
And keep growing and learning she will. No matter where life takes this bright young talent, fantastic things lie in store.
As of this date, Hannah Mayer and Friends will have performed the final show in a series, “Hannah Mayer and Friends,” at An Die Musik Live! on May 17th, leading a group of Peabody students in a performance featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim as well as original compositions. Mayer has also accompanied on piano for shows at Keystone Korner by Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey’s “Sweet Return” ensemble, and will no doubt be appearing there and elsewhere in Baltimore. Be sure to follow the BJA “Where’s the Jazz?” page and Mayer’s social media pages for the all the latest news.
An accomplished pianist, trumpeter, educator, and writer, Greg has accompanied many noted jazz musicians. He is featured on the Grasso-Ravita Jazz Ensemble’s debut recording Jagged Spaces. Other releases include Singularity (original solo piano music), 72 Lanterns (original poetry), and How Alfred Won (a novella). In his spare time, he enjoys following the Orioles (hopelessly), running (slowly), playing the guitar (clumsily), and collecting Dave Matthews recordings (fervently). For more information about Greg, please visit gregsmall.net or follow him on Facebook or Instagram: @gregsmallworld