Bill Mays & Red Mitchell

Bill Mays and Red Mitchell constituted one of the great piano-bass duos of the 1980s. Musicians and dedicated listeners still talk about their gigs at Bradley’s in New York’s Greenwich Village. Their album Two of a Mind has been out of print for years, although it shows up from time to time on web sites including this one, at prices ranging from high to heart-stopping. In 1982, Mays and Mitchell made two programs that ran on KCET, the Los Angeles public television station. Four pieces from those programs have just materialized on YouTube. Here are two of them, both written by Thelonious Monk.

How did Mitchell get that sound, clear and precise, yet the size of Grand Central Station? His tone was always big, but after 1966 when he changed his bass tuning from fourths to fifths (as violin, viola and cello are tuned), it became enormous. He explained it to Gene Lees:

If you tune an instrument in fourths, you get a scale that is shorter physically. The top notes are lower, the bottom notes are higher in pitch. If you tune an instrument in fifths, you get a bigger scale. The top notes are higher, the low notes are lower.

There’s more to it than that; the tuning in fifths also effects how the notes sustain, or ring. For detail, read the entire interview with Mitchell in Lees’ indispensable book Cats of Any Color. It is fascinating for the fluidity, profundity and coherence of Mitchell’s ideas about music and life.
Mitchell died in 1992. Mays is thriving.

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  1. says

    Interesting Doug. I have completely the opposite view from you. I was a very great admirer of Red’s playing UNTIL he changed his tuning. From then on I hated the sound he got and he subsequently ruined so many albums for me on which he appeared.
    I did try, I kept listening but the “new” sound just got in the way. In addition, to me he no longer swung in the same way and the sound was lumbering and intrusive.
    Give me the Red of the Hamp Hawes Trio, the Bethlehem Trio/Sextet, the Mulligan Quartet, in fact all most anything he did in the fifties.

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing these, Doug. I love both of these guys but had never heard them together.
    Reminds me of the DVD Red did with Chet Baker!

  3. Mel Narunsky says

    Don, did you ever get to hear the 1960 LP “Good Friday Blues” by The Modest Jazz Trio (Jim Hall, guitar; Red Mitchell, piano; Red Kelly, Drums? There is a CD reissue available.
    Mitchell acquitted himself very well indeed on piano.
    (The entire “Good Friday Blues” session is included in a CD called “Blues on the Rocks: the CD also has three tracks of Hall with Chico Hamilton — DR)