The artist’s intent aside, the most direct path to hearing how each of the solo piano miniatures on Variations varies from its successors is to listen to each cycle in sequence, rather than how Kevin Hays has ordered these compositions. For example, the simplicity and stateliness of the opening “Variations on a Theme by Schumann 1” grows into something darker and with greater grandeur on “Variations on a Theme by Schumann II,” which is about double the length of the first. In the third installment, the moodiness and intensity become even more pronounced.
And so it goes on this quietly ambitious solo piano recording from the well-traveled Hays, known for leading his own bands, including a celebrated trio with Doug Weiss and Bill Stewart and the Sangha Quartet, as well as his sideman work for the likes of Bob Belden, Eddie Henderson, Chris Potter and Sonny Rollins. “Bluetude 1” and its two sequels are among several tracks that demonstrate Hays’ ability to effectively plumb the lower regions of the keyboard, with long ascending and descending left-hand lines running into lovely right-hand block chords.
Elsewhere, there are quick sprints (“The Dervish of Harlem 1” and “2” but not “3”), poignant themes (“Song for the Amiable Child 1” and its two successors), playful exchanges that come off as call-and-response figures (“Countermyth 1” through “Countermyth 4”) and a stormy, low-end interlude (“Langsam”). Touching on everything from Baroque to late Romantic to contemporary classical, Hays applies his own jazz-honed techniques to small gems that may be partially or wholly improvised. Either way, they’re consistently engaging, nearly all giving way to surprising musical depths despite their brevity.