CD Reviews

Hannah Mayer and Friends Play Sondheim

Young creatives nowadays march to a different drumbeat.  They are fairly well experienced despite their age, and they find alternative pathways to get their art out to a public that is looking for non-traditional approaches to jazz. They are dynamic, thoughtful, and fearless in many formative ways.  Inexperience does not always correspond to a lack of creativity or breadth of talent.  Their vantage point is unique and worthy of exploration.

Such is the case for the debut project of pianist Hannah Mayer and her recording Hannah Mayer & Friends Play Sondheim, released on November 3rd on all digital platforms including compact discs.

The Summer 2022 issue of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance newsletter featured a story on Mayer:  a San Francisco Bay native, introduced to the piano at a young age, enrolled at a performing arts school in sixth grade, a theater fan her whole life who eventually got stung by jazz.  In that article, she mentioned artists such as Cedar Walton and Wynton Kelley as influences.  She is still a current jazz student at Peabody Conservatory here in Baltimore.

This recording – again, her first as a leader – gives her the opportunity to combine her great love for musical theater and the jazz idiom.  But this blend is a step further than the typical instrumental renditions of The Great American Songbook.  There’s no “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” for this project – as great as the Miles Davis version of that Broadway classic might be.  Mayer is very intentional with her song selections, her original arrangements, and her auspicious band members.

Pianist Mayer says “It’s all Steven Sondheim music.  I’ve sort of been a theater fan my whole life, and he’s one of my favorite composers.  I’ve had this group going at An die  [An die Musik, a venue in downtown Baltimore] for the last year and a half.  I’ve brought in some arrangements of his music throughout the time we’ve been playing.  This project started when a friend who does the sound at An Die [Musik] who was also going to Peabody, wanted to record us for her graduating project.”  Recorded on a single day in February, the album shows no evidence of fatigue or cliché; Mayer and her bandmates are locked in, creating different shades and colors for each engaging track.

Joining Mayer is trombonist Jett Lim, guitarist Charlie Reichert Powell, bassist Aidan Taylor and drummer Koleby Royston. (Learn more about these musicians here.} They joined Mayer in a concert featuring the Sondheim repertoire at An die Musik on May 17, 2023.

“I feel like they are all pretty special for me,” says Mayer of the tunes.  “But the one that stands out to me would be the last one.”  The last track, “Not a Day Goes By/Finishing the Hat/Losing My Mind, ” is beautiful.  Mayer plays piano on this track from a distinctly chordal perspective.  Her ability to generate melancholy through these three transitions is beautiful.  She is not afraid to allow the melodic material to rule the day and simply supports it with appropriate harmonic choices.  Her maturity is vast throughout; at no point does she fall prey to a “look at how good I am” moment.  All of her note choices and chordal applications serve the music.

The first track “Night Waltz/The Miller’s Son” oscillates between time signatures without being distracting or annoying.  It fits appropriately.  Lim and Powell are fun to listen to, while with her use of chords and space, Mayer nods just a bit to the school of Bill Charlap. Of course, it takes a more than skillful rhythm section to pull off these time shifts, and I find Taylor and Royston navigating the twists and turns without a hitch.

“You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is witty, amusing and very well executed.   This is where the trio of piano, bass, and drums demonstrate they could stand alone as a unit.  Yet the trombone solo is stylistically musical and inventive.  “My Friends” is a type of ballad that never loses its smile.  It’s beautiful without being too sugary sweet.  “Another Hundred People” is a force.  Not just an excuse for chops, but rest assured, this band’s got them.  Powell creates colors and floats his conversation on top of the piano in a way in which, on the first pass, they almost seem to be competing with one another, until it begins to settle in and really starts to speak in its disjointed, rhythmic way.  Koleby Royston is fantastic on this track.  “It Takes Two” gives you the medium swing vibe as a nice palette cleanser.  Mayer is especially a bit adventurous on this tune but never does it go over the side of the road.  Again, it has a masterful improvisation from the guitarist and bassist Taylor, providing a foundation everyone can be comfortable with.

“Not While I’m Around” has always been a favorite of mine, and it was nice to hear Taylor step out a bit and display his sense of melody.  The front line of trombone and guitar are tender with the melody, while Mayer’s rolling piano treatment is again a bit of Charlap with maybe a touch of Hank Jones.  “Old Friends” continues with that piano style but soon takes off and allows everyone to just have fun blowing over the changes.  Yet again Taylor and Royston show they are equally adept at leading and supporting.

This is one of the more attractive, creative releases of the year.  It is certainly a highly impressive submission from a young creative who seems to value charting her own path.  Hannah Mayer has a promising future in music.  If this release is any indication, she will play an impactful role in advancing the music forward.  Brava, Ms. Mayer.  The pleasure is ours.  To use Broadway terminology, this recording is ‘downstage,’’ firmly rooted in the limelight.”

–by Eric Byrd

Eric Byrd is a jazz pianist and leader of the Eric Byrd Trio, which has performed extensively with some of the most recognized artists of jazz.  Byrd and his sidemen Bhagwan Khalsa and Alphonso Young Jr. hold advanced degrees in Music History, African American Music, and Jazz Performance. They have been sponsored by the United States Embassy as Kennedy Center/U.S. State Department Jazz Ambassadors, touring and performing worldwide. Byrd is returning as a writer for the Baltimore Jazz Alliance newsletter. 

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