Born in 1968 in New York, Hays grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut where he was introduced to the piano at age six by his father. Although he was a fan of rock and pop music, by his teens he was gravitating more toward jazz. He began playing gigs while still in high school, and further honed his skills taking private lessons with pianist Lou Stein and attending the Interlochen Music Camp. After high school, he spent a year at the Manhattan School of Music, and played in Nick Brignola's band before dropping out to pursue his music career. In 1990, Hays made his debut as leader with El Matador, playing with saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart, and guest Joe Henderson. He followed with several albums on the SteepleChase label, including 1992's Ugly Beauty, 1993's Crossroad, and 1994's Sweet Ear.
In the mid-'90s, Hays signed with Blue Note and released a handful of highly regarded albums beginning with 1994's 7th Sense, which featured saxophonist Seamus Blake, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Brian Blade. The sextet date Go Round arrived a year later, followed by a 1996 trio session, Andalucia, which found Hays working with legendary Miles Davis band alums bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Also during the '90s, he worked with Bob Belden, the Harper Brothers, Joshua Redman, Sonny Rollins, and others.
In the 2000s, he formed a close-knit trio with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Doug Wiess. Together they issued a number of albums, including 2001's What Survives, 2005's For Heaven's Sake, and 2009's You've Got a Friend. The trio also joined Seamus Blake in the Sangha Quartet for 2003's Fear of Roaming. Hays also recorded several acclaimed duet albums with fellow pianist Brad Mehldau and joined saxophonist Tim Ries in the cross-pollinated Saffron quintet. He also issued a 2011 solo piano album, Variations, which found him interpreting the music of classical composer Robert Schumann.
In 2015, Hays issued New Day, which featured his trio with bassist Rob Jost and drummer Greg Joseph. The album, which developed out of the group's two-year residency at New York's 55 Bar, also marked the first time Hays sang on record. The trio returned the following year with North, after which Hays joined drummer Steve Gadd for 2018's Steve Gadd Band, which took home the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. 2019 also proved a busy year for Hays as he paired with Beninese guitarist Lionel Lueke on the duo album Hope and collaborated with Italian vocalist Chiara Izzi on Across the Sea. Hays also debuted his trio with saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer Marc Miralta on Where Are You. ~ Matt Collar, Rovi
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