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Genius Guide to Jazz

Pianist Enlargement

By Published: October 24, 2003
With all his considerable success in jazz, Keith never lost his love for classical composition and performance. He also never lost the hope that classical music might work the same magic for him that it did for the aforementioned Dudley Moore or later, Thomas Hulce in Amadeus. In fact, since the early seventies Keith has maintained two distinct, almost parallel careers (three, if you count the doppelganger) in both improvised and composed music. Not since Mozart, or at least Fred Waring (bandleader, composer, and inventor of the electric blender), has an artist been so versatile.

From his prodigious beginnings to his madcap European adventures, Keith arrived in the eighties a mature artist. He no longer needed an afternoon nap and rarely threatened to hold his breath till he turned blue if things did not go his way. He formed in 1983 what would be his primary group element from that point on, the Standards Trio, with Jack DeJohnette (repeat fancy mustard gag, from last month ) and Gary "NBC" Peacock.

Since the early eighties, Keith has performed exclusively with the Trio or solo in either classical or completely improvised jazz concerts. It is his improvised concerts that are perhaps the most interesting, just Keith and his piano with no predetermined structure. It is the immediacy of jazz taken to its logical extreme, the act of creation in real time with not so much as even a suggestion from the audience (he quit taking requests after hearing "Play some Skynyrd!" one too many times). Some likened the experience to watching Manolete pick a fight with a random bull on the street, which is just silly.

Moving along.

1984 saw Keith play no jazz at all, concentrating on his other passions of classical composition and performance, while devoting his free time to his mad quest to break the high score on Donkey Kong (he saw the concept of a giant ape throwing barrels at a determined working man as a metaphor for the music business). The withdrawal from jazz weighed heavily on Keith, as did the encumbrance of carrying around all those quarters. In 1985, he suffered a breakdown that left him in such a state that for several days, the only musical activity he could manage was to hum the theme to Hill Street Blues.

Emerging slowly from this incident, he found himself in a state of revelatory creative ecstasy. Recording on standard home cassette recorders, and playing all of the instruments himself, he turned out 30 improvised pieces. Twenty-six of these would be collected and released on the double album Secrets , while the other four were left by the door, mistaken for Kit Kat bars and given out as Halloween treats. Undaunted by the error, Keith would still divide his life Before Secrets (B.S.) and After Secrets (A.S.). Feel free to enjoy those abbreviations, kids, but remember to play nice or I'll have to separate you.

Seriously.

Moving into the Nineties with his four primary creative outlets—solo jazz, solo classical, the Standards Trio, and his brother Dale's number 88 stock car racing team ( I may be wrong about that last one, but NASCAR tie-in's are big money, so I'll thank you to keep it under your hat. Keith finally began to receive the respect he deserved, particularly from the classical world. For one thing, Van Cliburn no longer gave him a Melvin every time they met. He also received a Grammy nomination for his rendition of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book I , and several awards both for recording Shostakovich?s 24 Preludes & Fugues op. 87 and for spelling Shostakovich correctly on the first go.

In 1994, Keith and the Standards Trio performed live at the Blue Note in New York and jumped on the box set bandwagon with a 6-CD collection of the entire three-night experience that was hailed by critics as "lengthy." Keith followed that with what is considered to be one of his finest solo performances at the famed La Scala Opera House, the first non-classical, non-monster truck event ever to grace the storied venue.

1996 saw Keith and the Trio performed in Tokyo what is widely considered to be one of their greatest shows, intermingling timeless jazz standards with the ancient traditions of Kabuki theater. A later attempt in Osaka to combine jazz and Sumo fell flat because Keith weighs maybe a buck fifty soaking wet.

So then.

In the late nineties, Keith was diagnosed with what came to be known as Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome (which used to be called just plain "sick and tired"), which left him unable to meet the rigorous demands of live performance. He now spends a great deal of his time raising awareness for a variety of mustache-related causes, as well as lobbying the medical community to come up with a cooler name for his disease. And even though his illness has kept him from his deserved place at jazz's current forefront, I'll still lay you 3:1 he could take Brad Mehldau in a fair fight.


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