Joe Locke and Geoffrey Keezer: Live and Lush in Seattle
Two giants of modern mainstream jazz joined forces last fall at the Ballard Jazz Festival in Seattle, and the result was golden. Not only did this elegant quartet win an Earshot Golden Ear Award as the Northwest Concert of the Year for 2005, the music was recorded and released this month as the Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group, Live in Seattle (Origin Records). Now the 21st century has its own "Modern Jazz Quartet," kneading musical ideas of the new millennium with mainstream accessibility and incendiary inspiration.
While hinting at a fantasy blend of Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner, Geoffrey Keezer has evolved a singular style of intellectually abstract lyricism woven over exotically complex rhythms and harmonies. As a child prodigy surrounded by musicians and music educators (father Ron Keezer headed the jazz band program at the University of WisconsinñEau Claire), Keezer performed at the Dakota Jazz Club in nearby Minneapolis when he was only 16, two years before his stint with Art Blakey's last edition of the Jazz Messengers. In addition to his own trio, quartet with Locke and amazing discography as a leader, Keezer currently tours with Christian McBride and Jim Hall. His previous release was also a live affair, Wildcrafted: Live at the Dakota (MaxJazz, 2005). [Click here for a review of Wildcrafted]
Considered by many as most gifted vibraphonist of his generation, Joe Locke was recently named Vibraphonist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. A self-taught improviser who grew up in Rochester, NY, Locke also was an early bloomer, playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Pepper Adams and Mongo Santamaria before high school graduation, and studying classical percussion and composition at the Eastman School of Music. Current projects include the Milt Jackson Tribute Band, Four Walls of Freedom, duo projects with pianist Frank
Kimbrough and mirimbist Christos Rafalides, and the quartet with Keezer.
Locke and Keezer were hardly strangers when they received the invitation to perform together at the 2005 Ballard Jazz Festival, but previously their collaboration had been limited to tours and recordings in Japan. With Keezer Trio veterans bassist Mike Pope and drummer Terreon Gully, "The Group" took the stage in Seattle on November 19, 2005 for a crowd of "such receptive ears, in an environment conducive to giving a good performance" (Joe Locke, liner notes). And there's something about this music that helps stimulate those "receptive ears"ólive or on record. Perhaps one factor related to the intimacy and energy of this set is the performance of relatively new music: With the exception of James Taylor's "Native Son," all composition are from either Locke or Keezer, and it seems that none was previously recorded. Beyond the performance of new works, well-placed electronics extend the comparison to the MJQ; if they had played into the 21st century, perhaps John Lewis, Milt Jackson and company would have evolved their sound in this direction. Keezer these days typically performs with a keyboard adjacent to the grand piano; Mike Pope alternates his upright acoustic bass with an electric ax.
Locke's compositions bookend the set. "Van Gogh By the Numbers" starts out with a clanging set of chords and brief melodic passage from Locke and Keezer before Keezer sends his electronic lines bubbling and twising over Gully and Pope. It's on the funky end of the playlist, a fusiony post bop swirl somewhat reminiscent of Hiromi with vibes. Locke's solo is more down to earth but a bouncey journey with some rapidly repeating and spiraling phrases. Gulley sends a frenetic pepper spray of pops, pushing the keyboard vamp that runs in tandem with Pope's bass antics; the more lyrical theme returns as if re-entering the earth's atmosphere. Locke's closing track, "The King (for TM)," starts with a vamp that recalls the opening track, but here piano and vibes combine in an Asian-influenced motif. While Keezer provides a propulsive bassline, Locke goes after the melody with great abandon. When Keezer returns, he brings a more Americanized jazz feel, thickening the plot with Tyneresque chord and run patternsódelicate and powerful at the same time-- that slide into Locke's solo. The quartet returns to the opening motif with both Keezer and Locke feeding off each other and in unison, creating the sound of windchimes caught in a small whirlwind, resolving in a final flourish. Gulley, without taking a solo per se, is prominent throughout (and indeed, on all tracks) in his multi-sonic artillery displays.
Locke's third contribution, "Miramar," finds piano and vibes sharing the first statements. With celestial comping from Keezer, Locke displays his most lyrical work of the set. The piano passage seems to float as if on a sea of passing stars, Keezer creating an orchestral sound from single instrument and use of the sustain pedal. The midsection contains luxuriant harplike cascades of notes the pianist (as if he has four hands to Locke's four mallets) and cymbal shine from Gully. Keezer and Lock trade back and forth like a conversation between two old friends of one mind.
Keezer contributes his own compositional chops. "Honu" starts like a romantic piano prelude with a repeating left hand bassline that supports a duet among vibes and right hand. Gully provides glistening cymbal work while Keezer keeps the left hand figure rolling while piano and vibes conspire with the melody. Keezer matches Locke's whizzing mallets with his own slickrock runs. At the midpoint, Keezer reveals his trademark lyricism and articulate attack with chiming descents and trilling figures that fade in and out over Locke's efforts, resolving quietly with an odd tinkling from the vibes. While I can't really tell from the audio recording, apparently Locke achieved this effect with the ends of the mallets, as noted in a review of their performance in Rochester, NY.
Keezer's "Fractured" stretches out to 11 minutes, ample time to develop themes and diversions. Bass chords sound the introduction as a tandem Locke and Keezer effort, followed by Keezer's statement of a majestic theme embellished by his multifaceted runs.
Locke takes over with some equally fleet-noted passages that resemble Keezer's rapid runs with their clean articulation, spiraling repetitions and overall melodicism. With a swinging post bop romp, Keezer climbs the keyboard, running right hand over left hand chords (his own walking bass!), whiffs of Tyner, Jarrett, Hancock and Evans layered upon each other. Mike Pope provides an elegantly conceived solo here, covering the big box with a melodic and conversational tone. Locke and Keezer return, trading off and in unison, while Gully sits in the driver's seat throughout. "Tulipa" begins with another vamping piano statement, and Locke has a series of repeated phrases as well before develping a melodic theme. Pope maintains a deep-throated dirge on electric bass. This track really swings as Keezer lets loose with speedway runs, landing in tandem with Locke. After picking up the baton, Locke gives Keezer the last twittering word.
The one cover, James Taylor's "Native Son," was written about the return of U.S. soldiers after the Desert Storm invasion of Iraq. "And then, the cameras got turned off, and they were home alone," Locke noted. The track starts with rolling drums, the hint of military pomp, while Keezer's electrified hymn sets up the vibes for an organ-like solo over the rhythm section. Keezer and Locke together create a bluesy, gospel-infused arrangement with little touches of funk--I wish I had a video version to see Locke's mallets fly on this one! A fusion groove takes over in the last third of the track as Keezer bubbles forth over Pope's electronic beat; Gulley works like a corn popper. An elegant repeating theme finally dissipates in a final phrase from Locke.
While individually each track is masterfully presented, it is the whole of the set that is truly commanding, and while this may have been the first performance of this quartet on an American stage, the ensemble manages to evoke both spontaneity and well-meshed interplay. The sound is cleanly captured Reed Ruddy and Max Guenther for Origin. As a long-time fan of the MJQ, I particularly enjoy the modern twists and turns taken by a virtuoso band of the same instrumentation. While I wish I had been there at the Ballard Festival on this November night, I'm grateful that I can play and replay Live in Seattle until I have the good fortune to see/hear Locke, Keezer and the Group in person. And let's all hope this is just the beginning of a long collaboration.