Discovering the groovy sounds of Calvin Keys | Bleader

Discovering the groovy sounds of Calvin Keys


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Today is Calvin Keys's 69th 70th birthday. Until recently I knew only that Keys was a jazz guitarist—I'd never knowingly heard any of his work. That's changed thanks to the great Tompkins Square label, which has reissued his 1971 debut album, Shawn-Neeq. The record was originally released by the iconic Black Jazz imprint, an Oakland label that concentrated on a funky, soulful branch of African-American jazz—a kind of proto-fusion, minus the wankery.

Keys, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, gravitated first to Kansas City, where he played with a variety of Hammond B-3 masters, including Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, and Richard "Groove" Holmes. In 1969 he moved to LA, where he hooked up with Black Jazz founder Gene Russell. Keys later toured and recorded with Ray Charles and Ahmad Jamal; he settled in the Bay Area in 1975, where he still lives and plays. I haven't heard his other recordings yet, but Shawn-Neeq is a keeper.

Keys has a clean, sweet tone steeped in the blues; the music is alternately funky, swinging, and meditative. One of my favorite things about the record is the bass clarinet of Owen Marshall, which cuts through the undulating warmth of Keys's nimble lines and the electric-piano chords of Larry Nash—particularly at the start of his solo on "B.E.," the track you can hear below. His opening upper-register notes sound wonderfully like a nasty blast of feedback. On "Criss Cross"—not to be confused with the famous Thelonious Monk tune of the same name—Keys articulates his fluid postbop runs with a metallic edge, while on "B.K." he plays with an irresistible propulsive thrust. The reissue was pressed on 180-gram vinyl, and it sounds mighty good.

Calvin Keys, "B.E."

Today's playlist:

Mats Eilertsen Trio, Elegy (Hubro)
Heinz Sauer, If (Blue) Then (Blue) (ACT)
Sharron Kraus, The Woody Nightshade (Strange Attractors Audio House)
Tom Hamilton, Pieces for Kohn/Formal & Informal Music (Kvist)
Orhan Gencebay, Aski Ben Yaratmadim (Kervan)