Ace of bass
Reno, NV 89509
Mike Mayhall gets around. In addition to high-profile gigs with the ska-soul band Keyser Soze and the indie folk rock band My Flag is on Fire, the prolific bassist also performs with innumerable jazz groups, including the heavy flexing Droogs of Eidetia. He’s also the host, booking agent and musical anchor of Tuesday Night Jazz with Mike Mayhall & Friends, a free weekly event at St. James Infirmary.
It’s one of the very few places in town to hear live jazz as a living, fire-breathing, foot-stomping thing, not just an old-timey relic to be ignored in the background during breakfast on a rainy day.
“Jazz is such a broad term,” says Mayhall. “Some people are really into it. Other people don’t know what to make of it.” The jazz played by Mayhall and his various friends is a lot less polite than some people imagine when they hear the term “jazz,” but for adventurous music fans, it’s a lot more exciting.
“I’m blessed with something downtown every week,” says Mayhall. The weekly gig gives him ample opportunity to showcase and explore a variety of musical interests. “It’s always different because I do a lot of different things, and I’m into a lot of different things.”
Some weeks feature relatively straightforward small combo bebop-influenced jazz; other weeks feature free jazz untethered from traditional harmony. Mayhall also frequently presents tributes to legendary jazz figures like Thelonious Monk or Ornette Coleman, or performs tunes by contemporary jazz icons like Bill Frisell or Brad Shepik. The month of December will feature a number of tribute shows, some to musical figures only tangentially related to jazz but widely admired by musicians of all stripes: Dec. 7 will feature the music of Tom Waits; Dec. 14, the music of Frank Sinatra; and Dec. 21, the music of Frank Zappa and the rock band Rush.
Mayhall has lived in Reno since he was 8 years old, except for one year he spent in Seattle. He has two older brothers, Marcus and Matt, who are also musicians. He grew up playing in local hardcore and metal bands, including a stint in Fall Silent. He then studied jazz at the University of Nevada, Reno, and, though he’s now a graduate, he still performs with some of the university’s student combos. His interest in music is wide-ranging.
“There are so many bass players I admire,” he says. “When it comes to picking my favorites, it’s like, ‘What kind of music are we talking? What day of the week? What time of day?’”
Though Mayhall is quick to stress that the event is not a jam session, the Tuesday night events feature a rotating cast of local jazz musicians, including guitarists Ryan Hall and Joey Berger, drummers Rufus Haereiti and Caleb Dollister, multi instrumentalist Tristan Selzler, keyboardist Garret Grow, saxophonists Chris Clark, Joe Berry and Tim Shaghoian, and more.
Mayhall plays with the UNR Improvised Music Ensemble, which performs completely improvised music, with no preset harmonic or melodic structure.
“It’s as much work as any other style of music,” he says. “In some ways, it’s more of a challenge because there’s not a particular vocabulary.”
But his Tuesday night groups are also known to perform contemporary pop and rock tunes by songwriters like Bjork and Radiohead. Jazz groups have always performed popular songs of the day. It helps bring in listeners who might otherwise be uncomfortable with improvisation. It’s important to Mayhall that it not be a gimmick, and that any songs used as the basis for improvisations be songs that he and the other musicians actually enjoy, songs with good melodies and interesting chord progressions.
“It has to be stuff that we actually like,” he says. “But if we like that music, and the audience likes those songs, then it helps to bridge that gap.”