It would be impossible to tally how many listeners have heard the remarkable jazz pianist Mike Jones, music director for the Penn & Teller show in Las Vegas.
In more normal times, Jones duets with Penn Jillette playing bass as the audience files into the theater at the Rio, an enticing curtain raiser that also stands as one of the few remaining jazz attractions in Sin City.
But the Penn & Teller show has been dark since February due to the pandemic, meaning that Jones has played for a live audience just once in the past 11 months: an outdoor concert in Memphis in October.
“When I got out onstage and saw the people, I actually got a little choked up, because it had been so long since I felt that,” says Jones. “It was really overwhelming.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Jones hasn’t been “performing.” On the contrary, he has posted on YouTube nearly 125 videos of himself playing his Kawai concert grand at home. The sessions – each focusing on a particular classic song – capture his technical acuity and encyclopedic repertoire.
As does his new album, “All By Myself,” available on the digital platform Bandcamp.
“Kawai sent its chief technician to go over my piano, and it sounded so good I decided: I’m going to make a record myself,” says Jones.
“We spent a couple weeks with microphone placements, and in two different sessions I recorded a bunch of songs.”
No second or third or fourth takes, no splicing and dicing of footage – just Jones doing what he does best (and better than most): reeling off sleek interpretations of selections from the Great American Songbook.
Yet though the album documents Jones’ keyboard dexterity, it also casts his art in a somewhat new and more gentle light. It has been 20 years, after all, since he released his last solo album, “Stretches Out,” and the now 58-year-old pianist brings considerable maturity and a measure of restraint to its belated follow-up.
“I think about (solo pianism) much differently than I did 20 years ago,” explains Jones. “This whole record is not ‘in-your-face, look-at-me’ stuff.
“I had a different mind-set. It’s pretty intimate and relaxed. It’s not show-offy. I don’t need to do that anymore. I’ve got plenty of chops, but I’ve really enjoyed letting the melodies ring out.”
That’s apparent throughout the album, but especially in the tender opening passages of the title song, Jones offering a Chopinesque touch I’d never encountered from him before. The nocturnal tone he brings to “Poor Butterfly,” the lines he floats in “Chinatown, My Chinatown” and the wistfulness and poetry of his version of “Linger Awhile” point to a formidable pianist stretching out in unexpected ways.
It all makes you wonder if the pandemic’s many challenges have had a profound effect on how Jones views his art.
“I would say that it’s concentrated the amount of thinking I’ve done about playing, because I’m not distracted by other things,” says Jones. “So I’ve given a lot more thought to songs that I like.
“I’ve watched so many great musicians’ videos on YouTube – Benny Green and Ben Paterson, for example. And I think it’s given me a deeper understanding of the stuff that I value.
“I’m trying to become more musical. Having no (Penn & Teller) gig to worry about preparing material for has given me more time to concentrate and find stuff that I like in the music.”
Careful listeners will notice that the tunes on “All By Myself” date mostly from the early decades of the 20th century. Jones says that’s because he decided it would be easiest to record songs that are already in the public domain, enabling him to skip the red tape of securing rights and permissions. This, too, affects the tone of the album, giving it a golden-era nostalgia.
As for the Vegas Strip and environs, he’s hopeful it soon will come back to life.
“I went in April, and it was post-apocalyptic – police at the entrance to every casino,” recalls Jones.
“Now there are a lot of places that are open. The casino floors are opened, but they’re not allowing the shows.
“People are not coming to Vegas just to gamble. They want to see shows and have the nightlife.”
Until then, they can hear what they’re missing via “All By Myself.”