Buffalo native Mike Jones is what used to be called a “two handed pianist.” Not as obvious as it sounds, the term actually applies to jazz pianists who make full use of the entire range of the instrument and whose left hand prowess matches that of their right.
Pre-war jazz styles such as Stride and classic Swing are prime meat for such virtuosic pianists, and, when it comes to most effectively demonstrating the durable beauty of these idioms, Jones might well be the modern day master.
For the past three decades he’s dazzled listeners in performance and on celebrated recordings with displays of solo pianistic wonder; when his two hands could easily approximate the splendor of a full jazz orchestra, why would he need supporting players? Yet on “Plays Well With Others,” alongside acclaimed drummer Jeff Hamilton and the prodigiously gifted bassist Mike Gurrola, Jones proves that he’s as adept a team player as he is a one-man band.
The bill of fare on Plays Well With Others is standards; songs that have been in the common repertory for years but, in the hands of such exceptional stylists as Jones and his compatriots, can still take on a freshness and vibrancy that reinvigorates them anew.
Whether the source is the Great American Songbook, calling on timeless tunes by the likes of Jerome Kern, Harry Warren and Kurt Weil; Bossa Nova classics (Jobim’s ”Corcovado”); jazz originals (“Detour Ahead”); and even early rock ’n roll (Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’), Jones applies his magic for jolting results. None of his obvious virtuosity is sacrificed by collaborating with other musicians. What is revealed though is an empathic rapport with supporting players that has rarely been exposed before. Jones may be a virtual jazz orchestra when he plays solo, but on this album he proves that group interplay comes just as easily to him as self-sufficient music making.
Of course, those who have passed through Las Vegas and have had the pleasure of catching the Penn and Teller Show there know that Jones has actually been performing with another instrumentalist for years now. The other player would be the self-described “taller” member of the comic duo, Penn Jillette, who joins Jones (or “Jonesy” as he fondly refers to him) on bass during the introductory musical segment of the evening. But as Jillette states in his adulatory liner notes to the album, Plays Well With Others “is not Jonesy playing jazz with a magician, it's Jonesy playing the best jazz piano with the best drummer and the best bassist around.”
And if the comic cover of the album (illustrated by David Silverman, famed animator and director for The Simpsons) strikes a familiar note, head online and search for Diane Arbus’s thoroughly disturbing, 1962 classic photograph of a child in Central Park holding a toy grenade. It’s obvious that some of Penn and Teller’s off kilter worldview may have worn off on Jones. Comforting though, that in the illustration Jones is holding a musical note rather than a dangerous weapon in his hand. The thought of him potentially damaging his charmed fingers in any way is just too painful for any Jones fan to bear.
After graduating from Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo in 1980 and the Berklee College of Music in 1986, Jones remained in the Boston area working with such eminent local players as Herb Pomeroy and Gray Sargent. After significant East Coast performances, appearances at the Floating Jazz Festival on the S.S. Norway and the Queen Elizabeth ll, and a series of recordings that established him as a world-class pianist steeped in the pre-bop jazz tradition, Jones relocated to Las Vegas. There he drew the attention of Penn Jillette who, in 2002, brought Jones onboard for the nightly Penn and Teller show at Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino. Jones lives in Las Vegas with his wife, the author Cathe Jones.