Los Angeles-based drummer Matt Mayhall is equally at home in pop or jazz music. He was a member of alternative pop/slowcore band Spain. He’s toured with singer-songwriters Ted Leo and Aimee Mann; and performed with Liz Phair, John Doe of X fame, and Susanna Hoffs (of the similarly famous Bangles). On the jazz side, Mayhall has provided rhythm support for keyboardist Larry Goldings; bassist Eric Revis; and horn players Vinny Golia and Chris Speed. In late 2016, Mayhall added more to his credits by issuing his debut solo effort, the 34-minute, nine-track Tropes.
Throughout his nine originals on Tropes, Mayhall maintains a steady, slightly downplayed stride, a sort of modern twist on the West Coast school of cool jazz. That’s not to mean Mayhall replicates the music of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and others. It’s different. This is West Coast jazz which signifies what Mayhall’s album title suggests: tropes refer to a philosophical term which derives from the Greek as “a turn, a change” or “to turn, to direct, to alter, to change.” Mayhall’s Tropes consists of comparably flowing tunes which are moodily emotive, sustain a slower tempo configuration and have a fluid, sometimes even gentle demeanor. Mayhall uses several keyboards (Wurlitzer electric piano, Mellotron, and other keyboards) along with his drums and percussion. Mayhall is joined by electric guitarist Jeff Parker (formerly of Chicago post rock band Tortoise; Parker now lives in LA) and electric bassist Paul Bryan (who has also backed Mann as well as Allen Toussaint and Meshell Ndegeocello). Guests on select cuts include keyboardist Jeff Babko and Speed (on tenor sax).
It is clear from the get-go this is not a record spotlighting drums but is instead a composite ensemble project. The comfortably grooving opener, “On the Ceiling,” features Babko’s slow-burning keyboards (he adds either Hammond B3 organ or Fender Rhodes to four numbers). “On the Ceiling” has an informal feel and a measured smolder highlighted by Babko’s simmering keyboards and Parker’s somewhat distorted guitar licks. Babko is also present on “Removed,” which has even more of a chill-out characteristic. Bryan’s fuzzy electric bass supplies an inviting undercurrent matched by Parker’s softly ruminative and correspondingly nebulous guitar. Things get a bit skewed on the adeptly off-kilter “Picture Day.” This isn’t jazz on the edge, but there is a sense of scooting the groove back and forth more so than on other tracks, which conveys warm wooziness, like that feeling when a cocktail goes down and imparts heat to someone’s body. Babko’s final contribution comes on the lengthiest tune, “A&A.” The late-night ambiance is replete during “A&A,” which moves like molasses drifting down into hot coffee. “A&A” is a balmy musical melting down, nearly liquefied in its realization.
Speed is heard on two compositions: The music quickens on “Dum Dum,” where Speed’s higher-register sax contrasts swimmingly against Parker’s rock-twitched guitar lines. This tune never seethes, but it does swell, and cooks toward the conclusion when Speed pushes his sax into an animated composure. There’s a compactness to the 3:16 “Maybe Younger,” which has a sweet soulfulness which shifts to a fitful aspect. Speed’s sax and Parker’s guitar coalesce and commingle, and later duel, while Mayhall and Bryan lay down a moderately restless rhythmic foundation. In keeping with the album’s idea of altering expectations, Mayhall closes with a humble, picturesque solo piano piece, “Myopic” which has a centered beauty where the single notes resound and echo from out of the piano’s interior. Some musicians want to give excessive brio to their first solo endeavors, to showcase their range. What makes Mayhall’s music better than the average is his attention to a specific essence and a thoughtful sound, where mood rather than elaboration is all-important.
TrackList: On the Ceiling; Dum Dum; Removed; A Pact of Forgetting; Maybe Younger; Picture Day; A&A; Includer; Myopic
—Doug Simpson, Audiophile Audition