You can hear a current of youthful energy flowing through everything Dylan Hayes plays. His newly released Songs for Rooms and People with his Electric Band really turns up the juice.
We’ve seen and heard his piano and keyboards around Seattle with drummer Xavier Lecouturier in their DX-tet for years, and Dylan Hayes also has been entrusted with leading the long-running Jim Knapp Orchestra. You also can find him collaborating around the Northwest with the likes of Jay Thomas, Jeff Busch, Evan Flory Barnes and many others.
On Songs for Rooms and People, the 20-something Hayes lets loose grown-up grooves that reflect his longtime love of Motown soul and brainy funk. He also makes good use of the talented jazz community he’s become part of since arriving in Seattle in 2015 to study at Cornish College.
Lecouturier has been a friend and musical partner since Hayes’ teen years in California’s Bay Area. Some musical similarity to their DX-tet is natural, and Lecouturier does earn writing credit for four songs here.
The band also includes Santosh Sharma on tenor sax and EWI (electronic wind instrument), and Martin Budde on guitar. Songs for Rooms and People incorporates compositions from both, as well.
Tim Carey rounds out the regular lineup on electric bass, providing steady support through difficult musical terrain. Seattle icon Jay Thomas joins on trumpet for three songs, and Bay Area friend Nicole McCabe contributes an alto sax solo, as well.
That tune, the Hayes original “203”, exhibits passionate soloing on bright-sounding electric keys. The driving rhythm takes the band flying through twists and turns like a speeding sportscar motoring down the coast. With lead-off song “201” showing off two contrasting tempos, Dylan Hayes shows us he’s in full command of tricky rhythms.
Notable also on this piece and throughout Songs for Rooms and People is Hayes’ skill for constructing pillow-soft synthesizer beds that build in ambient waves. The line can be thin between this clever acoustic scene setting and cheesy distraction, Hayes never crosses it.
The album’s first single, “Nellie’s” is a good example of this dual keyboard player/producer combination. The opening keys riff is tweaked and modulated so that it sounds like a dozen different instruments. The melody line is undergirded by a wash of synthesizer, providing a band’s worth of support without drawing attention from the lead keyboard lines.
For a brief moment, the song drastically fades to nothing and then returns. It’s a popular move in electronic music and serves this audacious composition perfectly. I bet this song is a real corker performed live.
Most impressively, Dylan Hayes does a nifty trick of making complex compositions sound logical and natural. The melodies have the energy of improvisation, but are played in tight unison or counterpoint by the band. Credit the long relationship of Hayes and Lecouturier, and also his leadership on this album.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of spirited and intelligent soloing throughout the ensemble and the album. Apart from the bass and drums groove, “Trio Mood One” is completely improvised. Santosh Sharma takes a very cool EWI solo before short, snaky solos from the keys and drums. Thankfully, Songs for Rooms and People includes many soloing highlights from Hayes’ keyboards.
He’s a prodigious talent at the piano, but that doesn’t always transfer to electric keys. Hayes’ synthesizers and electronics both accentuate his musical chops, and he shows a keen sense of getting just the right sounds from his robot friends.
“Song for D,” a tribute to his Cornish College mentor Dawn Clement, features stately acoustic piano. There’s electronic effects underneath, some synthesizer and synth bass, too, but all in service of the piano sound.
The song that sparked the Electric Band’s creation, “What the Funk” delivers on the title. But it doesn’t take long to reveal complexity in melody and rhythm. Disco-powered fusion gets updated without denying listeners that classic, bubbly electric keyboard sound Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock messed with on the early synthesizers of the '70s and '80s.
With all the strong compositions by Hayes and his bandmates, my favorite is the inspired arrangement of the old Ahmad Jamal hit “Poinciana.” Lecouturier’s drums hint at the Jamal trio’s hypnotic rhythms, and the familiar melody only briefly centers the youthfully adventurous performance. Sharma’s sax solo makes you forget this is a jazz standard, Hayes dazzles on his funky keyboard break, Thomas gets to both tradition and modernity on his trumpet, and the rhythm section is locked in.
Tune in Saturday to hear this on The New Cool, and consider buying a copy of Songs for Rooms and People from Dylan Hayes. It’s got to be frustrating to put out a great new record and have no place to celebrate it with a live audience these days. Let’s celebrate – after washing our hands – the power of music wherever we are.
The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.