Artist Blog

Bill Mays: The Delaware River Suite

When Paul Read asked me to contribute something to this blog I asked what my focus should be: my arranging, my composing or performing? He said, “Whatever you’re interested in, whatever you want to share.”

I’m very interested in, and quite in love with, a place in Northeastern Pennsylvania where I spend several months of the year. I’ve had a house there for 30 years and in 2007 wrote a suite dedicated to the Delaware River, several places that border it, and my small local town, Shohola (“place of quiet waters,” according to the native Lenape people). I’m a real water person: born an Aquarian, a Navy guy, an avid swimmer and sailor. In fact, I got the concept for the piece while soaking in the Jacuzzi (which is where I am now writing these introductory notes)!

Basically I have a couple of ways that I start compositions. My usual approach is sitting at the piano, noodling some ideas that turn into motifs, that turn into phrases, that end up part of the final result. Another favorite way is sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, imagining a concert stage with the ensemble I’m writing for on that stage and just start jotting down the first things I hear coming from this imaginary band; that gets the ball rolling for me. For this piece I knew I would be writing for piano, trumpet and cello.

The river suite is probably the closest thing to a “theater piece” I’ve ever written. Preceding page one of the score is a map of the Delaware River Basin. Then there’s an opening prologue with pre-recorded river sounds over which my voice sings the praises (think Garrison Keillor) of the Delaware and other bodies of water I’ve spent time on. There is even spoken, countrified dialogue from the trio, based on local lore, in one movement. Even before I wrote a note of the music I knew I would write a multi-movement suite that would start with a fanfare, conjure up the excitement of white-water rafting, the serenity of the “float,” address Shohola’s history, reference the Delaware Water Gap and Philadelphia, and a finale that would salute the Atlantic, where the Delaware empties its waters. So, unlike my other compositions, I had a programmatic shape and the general flow already on paper before starting to compose. Secondly, it was a great treat to write for specific people: me on piano, trumpeter Marvin Stamm and cellist Alisa Horn, known as the Inventions Trio. I had a broad palate with Marvin’s improvisational talents, his ability to wear the hat of an orchestral player, and flugelhorn doubler. In Alisa I had a cellist with a big sound and a singing tone, as well as excellent rhythm and some beginning improv skills. And both of them were wonderful ensemble players. The end result (commissioned by Drs. Frank Osborn and Howard Horn) was the Delaware River Suite.

I. Prologue: Narrowsburg Deep
II. Rapid Ride at Skinner’s Falls
III. Float
IV. Shohola Hoedown & Campfire
V. Rollin’ Down the Water Gap
VI. Philadelphia
VII. Toward the Ocean

I’ve pointed out some salient features of each movement with sound and score samples below, with the complete score and recording of the piece at the end.

Prologue: Narrowsburg Deep: I suppose Aaron Copland was over my shoulder when I decided the fanfare that opens the piece should primarily consist of the interval of a fifth, should be short and to the point, and majestic.

Rapid Ride at Skinner’s Falls: Fifths occur often throughout the piece, as in the piano accompaniment figure and in the  melody of Rapid Ride:

   Following the theme each instrumentalist improvises over a four-chord, four-bar pedal, with accompanying figures that echo the movement’s introduction:

Float: If you’ve ever been in an eddy of a river and heard and seen the pops and plops of bugs and fish you know how fascinating a sound it can be. I wanted to convey that random, plopping sound, so I chose a twelve-tone row to start the journey. I tried many rows, finally settling on one simply because it sounded pleasing to me; it happened to contain several half-steps.

Seven iterations of the row occur, passing the row between instruments and using rhythmic and octave displacement. Later in the movement the three instruments, in rhythmic unison, choose their  own notes in an atonal free-for-all.


Shohola Hoedown & Campfire:  Here’s my Garrison Keillor moment! The Hoedown kind of wrote itself, it just fell out of me. A typical “fiddler’s-fifths” opens the tune, then Alisa has the melody, after which she provides bass “slaps” under Marvin’s melody. Country meets jazz for some choruses of trumpet and piano improv. Meant to be fun and humorous there’s even a horse’s (trumpet) “whinny” and a “Yee-haw” from the group.   

For the Campfire section I became film-scorer for a moment and wrote a plaintive (think harmonica) melody to kick off the first spoken story.

Rollin’ Down The Water Gap: I thought about cascading water with its forward motion and downward movement, and that gave me the idea of constructing the melody in descending half steps. The right hand of the piano doubles the trumpet/cello melody, with chords that include half steps and crunchy voicings, and this is set against an ongoing boogie-woogie pattern in the left hand (this was  lots of fun but my left hand almost fell off by the end of the movement!) The 24-bar melody is built on just four chords, and improvised solos are on a 24-bar blues

I was thinking like a big-band arranger when I gave trumpet and cello punchy rhythmic background figures behind the piano solo.    

 A “shout chorus” follows where I have cello, trumpet and piano playing in rhythmic unison. I wanted a crazy, fun effect so I have the right hand of the piano playing clusters with the palm of the hand, the cello playing “scratchily” with the bow and Marvin tooting on his mouthpiece, kazoo-style!   

Philadelphia: The city of Philadelphia, located along the Delaware, has always fascinated me. I kept intoning the word “Philadelphia, Philadelphia” over and over again and that gave rise to the rhythm of the melody (primarily based, again, on fifths), and probably suggested the jazz waltz feel. After a  short opening piano statement (which hints at the melody to come) the cello and trumpet each play the theme, followed by improv solos.     

Sometimes you realize, after the fact, the internal logic of a motif. I wasn’t sure where this little recurring background melodic segment had come from, but realized after recording it that it was based on the descending minor seconds in the preceding movement. Funny how the mind works…

Towards The Sea: Before the main theme, the piano (and cello) have a rhapsodic, rubato duet that sets the mood. Again, the interval of a fifth plays a prominent part, and the underlying harmonic scheme is a series of ii-V-I progressions. 

When the tempo starts it’s an undulating 12/8 groove, suggesting the feeling of being in a boat and  rocking gently. The melody (Ravel on my mind) consists of long, held tones over cello and piano 12/8 figures.

Throughout the movement several small snippets of previous themes briefly reappear. And I didn’t realize it till after I’d finished writing the movement, but I actually quote seven notes from God Bless America (in bars 69-71— “from the mountains to the oc-”), so thank you, Irving Berlin.

This composition was the centerpiece of the album, Delaware River Suite, and I was thrilled that Inventions got to perform it at some of the referenced locations: Narrowsburg, NY, Philadelphia and Delaware Water Gap, PA.


About the Author:

Pianist Bill Mays’ career as a professional musician spans the last 55 years and includes a multitude of musical endeavors. Following four years as a bandsman in the U.S. Navy Bill spent 15 years as a session player in the Hollywood studios. In 1984 he re-located to New York City, firmly establishing himself as an in-demand sideman and leader of his own ensembles. He has worked with jazz legends Benny Golson, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Gerry Mulligan, Bud Shank, Frank Sinatra, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, and Phil Woods. His many recordings as a leader (solo, duo, trio and sextet) are well-documented on the Chiaroscuro, Concord, DMP, Palmetto, and Steeplechase record labels.

A prolific composer and arranger, Mays has written many extended suites for bass, flute, woodwind septet, and pieces for big band and orchestra (New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Turtle Creek Chorale, WDR Big Band, U.S. Air Force Airmen Of Note). His latest recordings include Phil & Bill (with saxophonist Phil Woods), Side By Side: Sondheim Duos (with bassist Tommy Cecil), Life’s A Movie (with cellist Alisa Horn and trumpeter Marvin Stamm), and Front Row Seat (solo piano). Mays’ songs have been used in the movies Anamorph, Burn After Reading, Hamlet, Looker, and The Fifth Estate. His keyboard work has been heard on hundreds of film soundtracks, among them Fargo, Fur, Godfather 2, Hail, Caesar!, Jaws 2, Julie & Julia, Rocky 2, Superman, The Big Lebowski,  and The Spanish Prisoner.

Last year Mays received rave reviews with the publication of his first book, Stories Of The Road, The Studios, Sidemen & Singers: 55 Years In The Music Biz.

Awards and Honors:

  • Arranger, pianist and producer on Grammy-nominated Bop For Kerouac (Mark Murphy/Muse)
  • Pianist on Gold Album Paradise Cafe (Barry Manilow/Arista Records)
  • “Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition” in the piano category, Downbeat Magazine
  • Nominated for “Most Valuable Player” Award, Los Angeles
  • International Society of Bassists: “Friend Of The Bass”
  • Performance grants from Meet The Composer, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, N.E.A., PennPAT