Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rhythm, Culture and Geoffrey Keezer: Global Collaboration Yields Áurea

Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor Monday, 23 February 2009
“Whenever I hear a new music… I can’t just leave it alone, I have to sort of collaborate, to see how I can speak in that new language with my own voice, with my own way of looking at things... Those beats, particularly the lando, touch something really deep and really old... it's like looking back in time through the window of rhythm.” – Geoffrey Keezer

If lando and festejo become staples of jazz north of the border, we’ll be able to trace these influences not only to their roots in West Africa, coastal Peru and rural Argentina, but all the way to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, hometown of Geoffrey Keezer, one of American jazz’s most ardent brokers of global music. Among the most respected performers and composers on the scene today, Keezer was the wunderkind pianist in the last edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (at age 18) before moving on to other prestigious collaborations, including the Contemporary Piano Ensemble (with James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, and Harold Mabern) in the early 1990s, and more recently with the late Ray Brown, Christian McBride, Jim Hall and Dianne Reeves.

Image Geoffrey Keezer©Andrea Canter
Despite his Midwest upbringing, Geoffrey has long held a fascination for global folk traditions, resulting in such projects as Falling Up (MaxJazz 2003) with Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Keola Beamer and Yasukatsu Oshima with Geoffrey Keezer (JVC Victor 2007), focusing on the music of Okinawa’s Ryukyu Islands. And he is currently at work writing an arrangement of a Korean folk song for a chamber group in San Diego. “I think somewhere along the way, maybe in my 20's, I had a kind of heart-opening experience listening to traditional Japanese koto music, and then started checking out Balinese Gamelan, North Indian classical music, etc., etc. I kind of went nuts in Tower records and bought everything in the ‘world music’ section. I think I was hearing connections between every kind of music in the world, not so much in a technical or intellectual sense, but in a heart sense, something in music that speaks to our common humanity. I was realizing that every culture has ‘soul,’ to paraphrase Ray Charles.”

But Keezer’s interest in Afro-Peruvian music is quite recent, dating back to a big band performance at a jazz festival in Peru in 2004 and sharing the stage with a group of Peruvian musicians. Previously, he recalls, “I had only heard the music of the Andes, you know, the guys with pan flutes and drums that play on street corners in major cities...But I was totally unaware of Afro-Peruvian music, the music of coastal Peru... What makes Afro-Peruvian music so intriguing to me is the unique combination of cultures found in Peru, which in turn influence the music. In Peru you've got descendants of Amerindians, Spanish, African, even Chinese and Japanese… Peru's cultural crossover with Africa predates America's, and many more of the African elements are retained in the music than in jazz.” Thus began Keezer’s quest to compose music inspired by Peruvian traditions and to record the project through ArtistShare. His first such adventure as leader (Keezer earlier recorded a duo album on ArtistShare with Jim Hall), he was enthused about the options available through the audience participation format. “The ArtistShare business model offers unprecedented personal access to the artistic process. It's like seeing the bonus material to a DVD before the movie comes out.”

Through Áurea (a type of Peruvian lily), Keezer assembled an array of familiar and new collaborators who would participate in varying combinations: Hugo Alcázar, Peruvian percussionist who handles the trapset for Peruvian trumpeter Gabriel Alegria’s band; Nigerian bassist Essiet Essiet; Argentinean vocalist Sofia Koutsovitas; and American musicians, drummer and trio-mate Jon Wikan; alto/soprano saxophonist and frequent cohort Steve Wilson; guitarists Mike Moreno and Peter Sprague; and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake. Geoffrey’s wife Susan Wullff, bassist with the San Diego Symphony, adds her bowed voice to two tracks. “I wanted to form a band where I could do a lot of different things,” says Keezer. “Essiet Essiet (bass) and I played together in my first professional gig, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. Besides being a great bassist and team player, I chose Essiet for Áurea because he's from Nigeria and is well versed in West African Highlife music. I wanted to explore the African side of Afro-Peruvian music a little more, so some of our music is coming from that vantage point. Steve Wilson and I have worked together off and on for the past 15 years or so, in many contexts.”

Image Sofia Koutsovitis
The addition of Koutsovitas was important on multiple levels. “She's from Argentina, and writes all her own music that draws on many South American influences,” notes Geoffrey, [She is] very knowledgeable on all the different musics of South America and she has several other projects going with musicians from Colombia and Peru.” In fact, it was Sofia’s influence that expanded Aurea from exclusively Afro-Peruvian to include traditional Argentine music as well. Noted Keezer in an interview with All About Jazz, “She gave me a massive download of all this folkloric music from all over South America...Argentina is mostly known for the tango, but actually there's a huge element in their folkloric music [that is] of African influence, very similar to Afro-Peruvian music. The slave trade is the reason for the presence of African music in the Americas. But that whole thing swept down into Argentina. She said in the 1800s, Argentina was like one-third black, and the government rubbed everybody out. But the elements of that music still exist there. There are some very strong similarities." Video clips available on the ArtistShare site document Keezer’s education as he interacts with bandmates who grew up with the traditions that inspire the new music. Koutsovitas notes that there are thousands of rhythms from Colombia alone.

Áurea was released on ArtistShare in December 2008, a journey of about four years spanning much of the western hemisphere. Five compositions are Keezer’s contemporary creations drawing on South American traditions, while three were written by contemporary Argentine composer/songwriters. “A great deal of the music was composed prior to recording,” notes Geoffrey. “There are of course sections of each piece where improvisation takes over, where the composed tidbits serve only as guidelines to individual player's improvisation; but on the whole each song was pretty thoroughly mapped out in advance. The exceptions would be the trio pieces (‘La Flor Azul’ and ‘Vidala De Lucho’) where we just used the basic structure of the song and created an arrangement collectively.”

While the music is of course the main event, the experience of Áurea is incomplete without the context provided by interviews and video clips of rehearsals and discussions available through ArtistShare. Like its namesake, Áurea unfolds and blossoms with engaging melodies, danceable rhythms filled with energy and open spaces filled with joy. Long attracted to basslines, Keezer’s strong left hand gives length and elegance to the bass phrases that infuse his compositions, while the four tracks that feature Koutsovitas are filled with horn-like harmonies, even without horns. At least to these ears, at times there’s a trace of Bach in these tunes, toccata and fugue- like journeys on the keys, enveloped in traditions that were surely far removed from 17th century Europe!

The set opens with Keezer’s “Cayendo Para Arriba,” performed by the core quartet of Keezer, Essiet, Alcázar and Wikan, along with Steve Wilson on alto. A repeating piano pattern and steady percussion sways the music forward as Keezer displays a Tyneresque quality in both composition and execution, with clearly articulated phrases and meaty chords. Wilson twists and turns, the two percussionists adding a steady groove marked by intermittent fire.

Image Hugo Alcazar
A larger ensemble follows with Keezer’s “Una Bruja Buena” (“The Good Witch”), featuring Ron Blake on alto, Mike Moreno on electric guitar, Phil O’Connor on bass clarinet, and Koutsovitas on vocals. The octet makes it a celebration of “anyone who does magical things” while Alcázar’s quijada (donkey jawbone) adds a subtle rattle throughout. The bass clarinet was added after the initial recording session, Keezer seeking to double the basslines through overdubs; Sofia’s voice was also overdubbed in the studio, a session that can be observed via ArtistShare.

Sofia introduced Geoffrey to “La Flor Azul” (written by Mario Armedo Gallo and Antonio Rodriguez Villar), a song she heard growing up about “sorrow and love, endless sorrow...” Reflecting the northern Argentinean folkloric tradition, the instrumentation is pared down to piano, percussion (Alcázar) and voice, although Keezer manages to play bass notes in his left hand while strumming a guitar in his right hand. Keezer notes that the song has an overlapping 6/8 rhythm, the bass part in 3/4 and percussion straddling both. “La Flor Azul” is a folk dance, Keezer’s solo filled with flourishes as a modern deconstruction of tradition, and featuring some of the most elaborate keyboarding I’ve heard from him. Sofia alters the rhythmic pattern in her return verse, giving the song a more serious quality.

Keezer’s “Araña Amarilla” (a desert flower) begins with piano and alto sax (Steve Wilson) in unison, the harmonies suggesting two horns. Both Wikan and Alcázar use cajon and palmas (hand claps), producing a popping beat. Keezer explores his melody, tracing with intricate single lines, Essiet also tracing that single line with a gurgling bass. The pace picks up, the percussion a steady force as the flower unfolds and Keezer adds layers of texture, while Wilson takes off on a slithery solo, all dissolving into a finale of hand percussion.

Keezer’s “Leucadia” is a sweeping composition that features the core quartet with acoustic guitarist Peter Sprague, who triples as recording engineer and mixmaster. Repeating piano phrases rotate above hard-hitting but airy percussion. Alcázar’s furious handwork on the cajon is prominent throughout. The ensemble surges as if introducing an orchestra; Sprague weaves the theme around Keezer, who drops chords into spaces like pebbles into water, sending waves of sound out from the center. The track begs for dancers, although the rhythm shifts, making it difficult to follow your partner! The use of electric bass under acoustic guitar yields a sonically interesting pattern, while Keezer’s phrases climb, then descend in cascades of single notes interspersed with sequences of chords. Although at times suggestive of Cuban pianists, there’s more of an American bop feel.

Arranged for octet by Geoffrey, “La Nostalgiosa” (by Argentines Eduardo Falú and Jaime Dávalos) flows like a lullaby, telling the tale of a “wounded soul” through samba-like rhythms.

Starting with a melancholy single piano line (which Geoffrey describes as “a suspiciously Okinawan treatment”), Keezer moves into a catchy, repeating harmonic line beneath Koutsovitas’s melody. As in a round, each instrument enters with its own voice. On flute, Ron Blake picks up the melodic lead with a more complex harmonic structure while the percussion is more assertive. Susan Wulff’s bowed bass is very subtle, giving the song just a hint of darkness.

Image Jon Wikan©Andrea Canter
Geoffrey’s “Miraflores” references an area of Lima known for its gardens and beaches. With the core quartet only (no voice, no horn, no guitar), the musicians create an almost sinister opening with rhythmic hesitations filled by percussion, particularly the cajon. Keezer delivers the keyboard’s floral bouquet, at times recalling American blues laced with the more percussive theme of the opening segment. The pianist develops more and more intricate ideas, like gems turned in a tumbler by the underlying multiphonic percussion and pulse of the electric bass. The tempo moves from fast to slow, while the hesitations in rhythm and furious percussion interrupt the calm. Bop meets tango.

The closing “Vidala De Lucho was written by Argentine guitarist Juan Falú, nephew of the legendary Eduardo Falú, and written for a brother who disappeared in a coup d’etat in 1970s Argentina. On ArtistShare, Koutsovitas noted that the lyrics were very powerful tributes to those who disappeared and the families who sought to find them for many years, never knowing what happened. The smallest ensemble of the set, “Vidala De Lucho” draws its power from only piano, voice and percussion (Alcázar), with Susan Wulff adding bowed bass to the finale. An introductory piano solo soars like Liszt and Debussy at the same time, dark and brooding. Sofia enters with a wistful song over minimal piano accompaniment, Keezer becoming a more substantial presence on the second verse. Percussion is added to the third verse, and although it sounds like a rain stick, the posted video on ArtistShare confirms Alcázar uses brushes on the snare. Geoffrey’s later solo features rippling phrases from both hands, extended harmonies and more percussive effects. With Sofia’s return, the piano creates an underlying storm, then recedes into a more gentle resolution of bowed bass and chimes.

Whether melding swing with post bop, Africa with South America, or Okinawa with Wisconsin, Geoffrey Keezer proves time and again that respect for cultural tradition is an asset, not a hindrance, in seeking an original voice in music. Like a sonic sponge, Keezer immerses himself in folk tales and folk arts, in history and geography, soaking up “something really old” and wringing out new compositions and arrangements that allow his listeners to peer through that “window of rhythm” and into a poet’s soul. Among a growing list of projects seeking to infuse American jazz with traditions of other cultures, Áurea is surely one of the most honest and satisfying.

Áurea is available through ArtistShare ( or link from Geoffrey has announced that 10% of the proceeds from the sale of this recording (not waiting for recoupment) will be donated to Heifer International to provide llamas to needy Peruvian families. This review originally posted at

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