Geoffrey Keezer’s Grand Playdate

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The leader, playing only acoustic piano, “gets a little help” from a band of stylistically flexible virtuosos.

(Photo: John Abbott)

Like most jazz folk who’ve recorded during the past two years, Geoffrey Keezer made Playdate (Markeez) — billed “Geoffrey Keezer and Friends” — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The leader, playing only acoustic piano, “gets a little help” from a band of stylistically flexible virtuosos: Hammond B-3 organist Shedrick Mitchell, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake and bassist Richie Goods are Keezer collaborators of various duration; drummer Kendrick Scott, a newcomer to Keezer’s musical orbit, nails the grooves with panache, dynamics and fire. On all six pieces, Keezer enfolds himself into the ensemble, then bursts out with the characteristically creative, technically stunning, sui generis improvisations that have garnered him an international fan base via 22 diversely configured, conceptually eclectic albums since 1989, as well as numerous sideman appearances with hardcore jazz heroes like Art Blakey, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Ray Brown and Jim Hall and pop-jazz icons Chris Botti and David Sanborn.

Mitchell — who’d commissioned Keezer to write string charts for several lockdown productions, including the Baylor Project’s Generations — contributes two bespoke pieces to Playdate. On “Her Look, Her Touch,” a tender, smoldering ballad, his B-3 washes underpin Blake’s warm soprano saxophone and Keezer’s romantic ruminations; “Bebah” features ascendant strings, a soaring solo by Blake and Keezer at his most rhythmically effervescent. Guitar hero Nir Felder skronks out on Keezer’s snaky arrangement of “Tomorrow,” a Brothers Johnson’s funk hit from Quincy Jones’ Back On The Block. Newbie guitarist Aayushi Karnik, Keezer’s student at Juilliard, merges with the somber ambiance of “Refuge,” an urgent melody bedrocked by Wayne Shorter-meets-Rachmaninoff harmony, augmented by an 18-piece string orchestra and French hornist Rachel Drehmann.

“A lot of things happened in my life over COVID,” Keezer said. He spoke canopied from the July sun on the back porch of his Westchester County, New York, home where he’s lived since the summer of 2019 with his wife, vocalist Gillian Margot, and their toddler son after residing for 18 years in Southern California. “In 2020, I lost both my parents, though not from COVID. Having spent the past 30-something years mostly on the road, suddenly I found myself home with my family every day, through all the changes we were experiencing. My family became my refuge. Music did as well. In 2021, we also got a Yamaha C1 baby grand. It’s the first real piano I’ve owned since an upright that I sold in 1995. I was working all the time, so I could always get to a piano somewhere. COVID changed that. After being stuck at home for a year, Gillian convinced me to get a real piano.”

“It was an extremely introspective time for Geoffrey,” Margot said. “He kept saying, ‘I just want to make music; I want to do what I love.’ I think of him as this Midwestern white kid, raised by these elder statesmen, the majority of whom were African-American. As I see it, as much as Geoffrey has explored his own creativity and developed as an artist, he’s always tried to live up to what they taught him, always trying to please these teachers and mentors. I feel this is the first time he realized: ‘It’s just me now. My parents are gone. So many of my mentors and teachers are gone. I’ve just got to do what I want to do.’ He’s digging into his roots a bit more, allowing himself not to hold back at all.”

As an example, Margot mentioned that the aforementioned “Refuge,” which opens Playdate, contains thematic material from a piano concerto he composed in 2000 for his hometown symphony orchestra in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. That orchestra included his mother, Ellen, a professional French horn player, and his father, Ronald, a former drum student with Alan Dawson at Berklee, who, Keezer said, “set the bar high for me.” “I overdubbed the French horn four times, as a nod to my mom,” he said. “I also was inspired by the strings Alice Coltrane wrote for Infinity, which I always considered a beautiful work.”

Following this stirring homage is “I.L.Y.B.D.” (“I Love You But Damn”), a jaunty swinger whose harmonic flavor evokes Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers when James Williams, Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown held the piano chair. Williams befriended Keezer as a 16-year-old at the National Association of Jazz Educators Convention in Atlanta. Keezer was presented with a Young Talent Award along with Roy Hargrove and Stephen Scott. “I’d transcribed a bunch of Mulgrew’s solos on Keys To The City, and had James’ albums Progress Report and Alter Ego,” Keezer recalled. At an impromptu piano lesson in an empty hotel ballroom a few hours after they met, Williams introduced him to the caesthetics of Phineas Newborn, whose “independence between his hands, ability to play all the parts of the orchestra, and original harmonic concept converted me immediately.”

For the next 20 months, Keezer, who was already sending cassettes of his compositions to Gary Burton (Ron Keezer’s Berklee classmate), did the same with Williams, who not only offered informed feedback, but presented his music to Sunnyside Records proprietor François Zalacain, who recorded Keezer’s first album, Waiting In The Wings, during his very first week at Berklee. About 20 months later, Williams brought him into Blakey’s orbit, inducing his protégé to move to New York. Williams produced Keezer’s first four records; recruited him for two albums and several tours with Miller, Brown and Harold Mabern in the Contemporary Piano Ensemble; and remained a trusted mentor and surrogate father figure until his death in 2004.

“James put so much of his energy into supporting and promoting other musicians,” Keezer says. “Digable Planets sampled his tune ‘Stretchin’ on ‘Cool Like That,’ for which he got a large buyout. He put it all back into his production company — invested it all into the music.”

Over the last 15 years, Keezer, who currently has neither an agent nor a manager, has increasingly followed Williams’ DIY example. In 2008, he crowdfunded the Latin Grammy–nominated Áurea (ArtistShare/Motéma), an idiosyncratic Afro-Peruvian/Argentinian folkloric jazz project including Peruvian drummer Hugo Alcázar’s singular trapset-with-hand-drums sound, vocalist Sofia Rei Koutsovitis and Jon Wikan on cajon. In 2016 — after two collaborative albums with Joe Locke and the brilliant solo recital The Heart Of The Piano (Motéma) — Keezer crowdfunded the sessions comprising the sparkling trio album On My Way To You (Markeez), which features Margot’s contralto on half the tracks. Last June, he decided to create Playdate out of his own pocket.

“If I want to put out a record, I’m not going to sit around and wait for a label to decide I’m worthy,” Keezer said. “Fans always want to know when you’re coming out with a new album. Who wants to pay for it? These things don’t just happen.”

Asked why he’s had difficulty finding a patron label, or garnering recognition commensurate with the stature he holds amongst peers, Keezer responded: “When I do book gigs as a leader, we always have full houses. Sometimes I think I’m stuck in this syndrome where I’m more valuable as a side person. I don’t believe that about myself, but I’m told someone will say, ‘Oh, you’ve got Geoffrey Keezer in your band; we love him,’ but I’ll call the same venue, and they don’t want to take a risk on me as a leader.

“Meanwhile, I like to work,” Keezer added. Toward that pragmatic end, he’s paid the bills teaching at Juilliard and William Paterson College and conducting several online courses under the auspices of Open Studio. He’s also functioned increasingly as a for-hire arranger and composer for strings and orchestra.

“I’ve been commissioning Geoffrey several times a year since 2005, when he did a 60-minute, seven-part suite titled The Alaskan Suite,” said Tommy Smith, the artistic director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Smith recently assigned Keezer to arrange a suite of Albert Ayler repertoire — “Ghosts,” “Goin’ Home” and “When The Saints Go Marching In” — for the 2021 release Where Rivers Meet. Keezer described it as “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do: the idea of notating something that is almost un-notatable.”

“Geoffrey is profoundly gifted at arranging ballads and slow songs and atmospheric songs due to his knowledge of melodic development, harmony and instrumentation,” Smith said. As an example, he cited the “epic journey” that Keezer conjured in his arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord,” which SNJO recorded on American Adventure (2013) with David Kikoski and Randy Brecker as featured soloists. “Geoffrey composes like an improviser and plays like a composer. He can improvise when a sound or phrase or texture or harmony or rhythm appears in front of his creative vision as he plays in the moment, and create something that’s related to previous experiences of true improvisation, but isn’t narrated by clichés or recollections of muscle memory and practice. So when he improvises, he tells a new story. He’s achieved that level of freedom because he’s mastered everything. The paradox is that he has to let go of everything, and not keep a gatekeeper mentality.”

Another attribute is Keezer’s determination “to try to play whatever the gig requires” — or, as Sanborn put it, his “humility.”

“Geoffrey sometimes does stuff on stage —like when he plays on electric keyboard and acoustic piano simultaneously — that I think, ‘I didn’t know that was humanly possible,’” Sanborn said. “I don’t want him to stop. He’s also an amazing listener and his rhythmic sense is extraordinary — he can turn the time around and bring it back, and he understands the keyboard’s function as a percussion instrument. He tears it up, but it’s never empty virtuosity, meaningless strings of notes. At the same time, he knows when not to play, which is unusual for someone with that level of virtuosity.”

Two of Keezer’s Playdate friends offered variations on these themes. “I call Geoffrey the gumbo chef, because so many things happen within his playing and arrangements,” Mitchell said. “I never feel he comes with an agenda. You hear the virtuosity but also the beauty. If the music needs him to burn that piano up, that’s what it is. But he can color you to death, too, or play one note. And he exudes a playful spirit.”

Blake, Keezer’s oldest friend on Playdate, shared the bandstand with Keezer between 1993 and 1997 in Art Farmer’s employ and then for much of the ’00s in Christian McBride’s plugged-in unit. “You can go anywhere, and Geoffrey will find a way to embrace the simplicity or complexity of what you’re trying to get to,” Blake said. “He creates this orchestrated kind of chaos behind whatever you’re doing, in a way that seems almost childlike.”

It shows, even on Playdate’s album cover with the musicians portrayed as children frolicking on their instruments. “Gillian and I have a 4-year-old,” Keezer said. “During the pandemic, getting your kids together had to be a scheduled, planned thing. It still is. So I decided to call this Playdate because it was really about getting together with friends and making music like kids on a playground or in a sandbox. We are now in an age, necessarily, where so many artists are making social commentary, trying to bring awareness to racial and gender issues — all those things. But that’s not what this is about. This is purely musical escapism.” DB



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February 2023
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