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Geoffrey Keezer: Making, And Controlling, His New Music

R.J. DeLuke By

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People are mystified by the whole process of creativity and art. ArtistShare appeals to me because this process invites the audience along from the beginning to the end.
Geoffrey Keezer Pianist/composer Geoffrey Keezer has been playing piano since age three and has been on the road since 1989 when he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers after a year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Over the years, he's recorded steadily and played with numerous jazz luminaries including Ray Brown, Diana Krall, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Benny Green, and Mulgrew Miller.

But of late, things have changed for Keezer. In a few different ways.

He moved from New York to San Diego a couple years ago. Last winter he became a father. He discovered interesting music from Peru about four years ago and is in the process of developing a recoding stemming from that. He's off the road, enjoying a more sedate home life while working on the project.

Like most musicians, he also realizes that the music business, and the way music is made and marketed, must change. Technology has made old ways of doing things, and the companies that controlled them, practically obsolete. With that, however, is a new artistic freedom for musicians. There are new challenges for so many who are outside the realm of record labels. But challenges traditionally spawn innovation. Keezer is developing the project, to be called Aurea (after a Peruvian lily), on his own, via the ArtistShare system. It's an interactive model where fans participate and fund the project at various sponsor levels, as the artist develops a recording project unfettered by people in business suits telling them what songs "sell" and what songs don't. Composer/arranger Maria Schneider brought ArtistShare to the forefront when her Concert in the Garden album (2004) won a Grammy award without a single unit ever hitting a store shelf. All copies were sold via her website, and the production expenses came from patrons who joined the effort via her website. They were able to "watch" the whole recording process as it developed.

"Honestly, I think I may have quit if I hadn't found [ArtistShare]," Schneider told All About Jazz in 2007. "That thing made it possible for me to record this music and not only pay for my time and pay for the musicians, but make some money, help support what I do ... If I hadn't had that website, I don't know. The whole thing I'm doing now on the Internet. There's no way that would have happened with a record company, I'll tell you that. I was doing nothing but losing, and busted my butt trying to make those [previous] records and making nothing. It's really turned my life around."

Keezer is a friend of Schneider and has also participated on ArtistShare projects of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (At Sea, 2006) and guitarist Jim Hall (Free Association, 2005). "I liked the way it worked," says Keezer.

Keezer references a speech by a noted marketing expert Seth Godin, who touts that the music business must make bold changes to be relevant in this new era. "What he's talking about is a business model for music that's going to need to happen in the wake of all the record companies going down the tubes. He's not promoting ArtistShare per se, but what he's talking about is exactly what ArtistShare is. It's more about the community ["tribes" is Godin's euphemism] selling not just the music but offering the entire process as the product," says the pianist.

Chapter Index
  1. The Process
  2. The Music
  3. More Music
  4. Origins
  5. Adjusting
  6. Entertaining


The Process

It's a very interactive system, where fans get to peek in on the process, reading notes written by the artist, or, as in Keezer's case, listening to him talk about things (since he doesn't really like to type). There is both audio and video related to the recording of Aurea, which is still not complete. A fee is charged, and there are different levels, but that helps support the project. It also gives fans a level of participation never before experienced. Record labels, naturally, keep people out until there is a product to sell.

"Talking with fans and audience members after concerts, probably the number one question I get is: how do you do it? What do you think about when you're playing and how do you just go up there and make stuff up? Or: When you write music, what are you thinking about? People are mystified by the whole process of creativity and art," says Keezer. "ArtistShare appeals to me because this process invites the audience along from the beginning to the end.

"I'm one of those kinds of guys—I like the bonus material on the DVD," he says with a laugh while drawing an appropriate analogy. "When I rent movies, DVDs, I like to see how it was made. I like to get under the hood. I love the Lord of the Rings DVD. I learned how they did that stuff ... What I'm doing is not as extravagant as that, and certainly not as big of a budget, but it might be interesting to someone to see how this whole process of making a record works."

He notes, "It's not for everyone. Some people just want to buy the record, listen to the music, and have that be enough. You can still do that. Once the record's finished in December—hopefully sooner than December, but the projected delivery date is December—you can always just go buy the record. You can choose not to download all the supplementary material. But I think, for most people, the actual process itself is what's really intriguing, and the music at the end is the icing on the cake, because you've actually heard the music right from the beginning as it's being created."

There's also the business side of things. Ownership of the project is important to Keezer, and it's a big part of his venture into ArtistShare

Geoffrey Keezer"I own everything. I own the masters. If I want to license it to film or TV, it's easy to do. If I want to eventually release it in another form, I can do whatever I want to with it. I don't have to go through armies of lawyers to handle my own music. It's getting to the point where pretty much any creative music that is going to be made is going to be made in a self-produced way. There's not much happening in record companies in terms of vision for creative music."

There are other artists, like Dave Douglas, doing things in a similar way, even if it isn't ArtistShare, Keezer says. And he thinks artist ownership, in a way, also appeals to the consumer.

"It's like, 'Hey. This guy did it on his own. Let me help him out.' This money is going directly to the artist, directly to fund this project. It's not lining the pockets of some executive in a corner office in a high building somewhere. It's grass roots."

He adds, "I think the personal connection with the artist is another thing. I get e-mails through my website and I answer them all. One segment that I do [on the ArtistShare site] is answers to e-mail questions, maybe five or six of the most common ones, and I try to answer them in a video. It's very direct. My cell phone and my e-mail are right on the front page of my site. Anyone can call me or e-mail me. And I answer ... It makes the artist much more accessible, much more personal. It's the extended family of the internet. Instead of the little movement in a small part of town, it's all over the world, but it's still a community of like-minded people."

In his website notes on ArtistShare, Keezer tells participants that updates and information arrive "via written journals, streaming audio and video, and photo galleries. I want to include you in the excitement, intensity, and even fear and frustration that also enter into the process (though mostly fun!). I'm looking forward to the birth of this new music and realization of my new recording, and it will ultimately be the collaboration of all the remarkable people I'll be surrounded by. As a participant, you're making this all possible. Knowing that you're following along and contributing in such a significant way will inspire me to do all that I can to share something wonderful with you. I hope you'll take this journey with us by adding this or one of the other available offers to your cart."

The website has videos of Keezer discussing and working things out with musicians. It has versions of songs in various stages of completion. Rehearsals can also be witnessed by fans who participate.

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The Music

Aurea is an Afro-Peruvian jazz recording project featuring players from New York City and Lima. He says he first heard the music of Peru at a jazz festival in South America, and it had a profound effect, especially its rhythmic feel. He decided he needed to explore it further. "It took me almost about a year to figure where 'one' was, but once I got it—Man!" he says on the website.

Geoffrey Keezer"What's key here is, I feel like a student," Keezer says. "This is new music for me. I'm learning everything I can about Afro-Peruvian music and Argentinean music, Afro-Colombian music. This is all new territory for me. It's one of the reasons I'm excited about this project. I'm delving into something that is almost completely unknown [to me] and at the same time making a CD of it ... But let me approach it with humility and make the best music I can. It's all just music. I have enough resources from my lifetime of playing music that it all makes sense, and I know how to make it all work."

Keezer, an affable chap, adds with a chuckle (tongue planted firmly in cheek), "So join ArtistShare and the Aurea project and watch Geoffrey Keezer make a fool of himself trying to make new music that he's never done before!"

"But it's really exciting. It's really cool," says the pianist.

"It's going to ultimately be something personal. The end result—the songs I write, the arrangements I write—are going to be very different from, for example, someone from there, like Eva Ayllon or Susana Baca or Peru Negro, these great Peruvian bands. It's going to be very different from what they're doing. It's not in my blood. But it is really exciting. The beats are really exciting to me—the rhythms and the unique way that things come together there."

The band he has put together includes Essiet Essiet on bass, whom he met going back to his days with Art Blakey some 18 years ago, and John Wikan on drums ("one of the most diligent musicians I've ever met") as well as sax master Steve Wilson ("one of my very favorite musicians in the world to work with") and percussionist Hugo Alcazar from Lima, Peru. Adding vocals is Sofia Koutsovitis from Argentina. Mike Moreno and Peter Sprague on guitar and Ron Blake on sax are guests.

"What I've heard so far, it's still a very Keezer record," the pianist says, chuckling. "My friends that know my music already... it's not going to be so different that you won't recognize it. The things that you like about my music are still there. It just has a little different dressing on it. A little spicier. I have a lot of fans that still know me as the pianist with Art Blakey or the pianist with the Ray Brown trio. That's what they like. It's the same Geoffrey Keezer playing piano. The beats are a little different. It's something, I think, that will not be too much of a stretch for my fans to come along for the ride."

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More Music

"This thing is actually going into its fourth year," he says of the planning process for Aurea. "I was in Peru in 2004. I started recording in 2005. It's the slowest record I've ever made. I've been doing it on my own time, and more importantly, my own money. That's why it's taken me so long. It's been in the works for a long time.

"When I first started, it wasn't for ArtistShare. I started doing it on my own. Then when I found out about ArtistShare, I thought it was a great way to do it. I decided this is how I was going to finish it and get it out. Luckily, along the way, I was actually documenting everything; in the studio, on video and everything. So I've got lots of stuff available. If you're a participant, you can see and hear lots of the early stuff right up to what we're doing now."

Geoffrey KeezerKeezer has been working with Koutsovitis, who lives in New York City, choosing material to finish the record.

"It started out as an exclusively Afro-Peruvian kind of thing. Then when I brought in Sofia—she's from Argentina—she brought all of these other elements: Argentinean music, Colombian music... She gave me a massive download of all this folkloric music from all over South America. There are definitely threads that run through all of that. There's music that comes from northern Argentina. 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."

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Origins

Keezer, from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, comes from a musical family. Both his parents taught music, and Geoffrey started on the piano at about the age of three.

"I played drums too, as a kid," he says. "Until I was about 15, I hadn't really decided if I was going to be a drummer, a pianist, or both. The reason I gravitated toward the piano was the fact that my dad plays drums. When I was about 15, we started playing gigs locally. Nobody wanted to hire two drummers. So we decided dad would be the drummer and I'd be the pianist. The other reason is, I like to write my own music, and the piano, to me, was the most natural instrument to compose on."

Despite having access to lessons, and later attending the Berklee College of Music, Keezer describes himself as mostly self-taught. He explains, "It's not meant to sound impressive. I think each jazz musician is essentially self-taught. You have to teach yourself this music, mostly. We have great jazz educators roaming the planet, and I teach also. But if you teach a lesson one hour out of the week, it's up to the student to do 90 percent of the work. They have to practice. They have to listen to the records and do the transcribing and do the homework. It makes every jazz musician essentially self taught.

Geoffrey Keezer "That's what you want to be. The goal of playing jazz and being a jazz musician is to find your own voice and your own style—your own way of expressing yourself. The only way to do that is to teach yourself to play—with good guidance."

At the age of 18, he was off to Berklee. "I had a good class. Roy Hargrove was my roommate. Antonio Hart was my roommate for a while. Ingrid Jensen was there; she became a lifelong friend. Delfeayo Marsalis was going there. Chris Cheeks, a great saxophonist. Duane Burno, used to play with Roy Haynes for years. We had a really good class. And Joshua Redman wasn't going to Berklee, but he was going to Harvard and occasionally he'd come over and play at jam sessions. The whole scene there was healthy."

Keezer stayed only a year then moved to New York City. Very quickly came the phone call from Blakey "and I went on the road. I've been on the road ever since." He stayed with the legendary drummer for a year. Later, he worked with trumpeter Art Farmer's band for about five years, and then he moved on to a trio under the leadership of bass legend Ray Brown, a job that lasted three years.

"I've been with the Christian McBride band for the last eight years, which is probably, hands down, the best band I've ever been in. It's on a completely different level than any other band I've worked in as a sideman, in terms of communication and everyone being on the same page," says Keezer.

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Adjusting

"Ray Brown was great," recounts Keezer. "He was a beautiful human being and a very great bandleader. As good as the experience was, it wasn't exactly the way I wanted to play. I had to adjust. Any time you work as a sideman, typically when you're hired by a band, you're kind of like an actor playing a role. They hire you because of your basic skills. They like the way you play and the way you accompany, etc. But you do have to sort of bend a bit to the sound of the band. Which is fine. That's part of being a professional.

"Ray's concept was a lot more traditional, a lot more straight-ahead than what I was really wanting to do. To his credit, he never told me told me how to play. He knew that I could give him enough of what he wanted. He would allow me to go off on a tangent once in a while, as long as I gave him some groove and swing and blues, and all those elements that he was so great at and that made his music so special.

"With Christian McBride, it's the only band I've ever been in where all of the different kinds of music that I love, that I enjoy playing, and my tendency toward wanting to rock out and make weird noises on my keyboards ... All those things are not only tolerated, but encouraged and welcomed. When you hear me with Christian McBride, you're really hearing what's in my heart and in my brain as a musician."

Geoffrey KeezerEven his current project doesn't tell the whole tale, he notes. "When you hear my trio and the Aurea project, you're hearing different facets. But you're really hearing undiluted Keezer stuff with Christian McBride."

Over the years, this talented pianist has remained busy. He has 11 recordings under his name, has had compositions commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Saint Joseph Ballet, Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, the Zeltsman Marimba Festival, and was a recipient of Chamber Music America's 2007 New Works grant. He has also worked with classical artist Barbara Hendricks, producing Tribute to George Gershwin: It's Wonderful. His diversity is also shown in his 2006 album of duets with traditional Okinawan singer, Yasukatsu Oshima.

"I've been extremely lucky. I know the economic climate has gone up and down, but I feel really blessed to be in the entertainment business in general. I think even in the worst of times, people need to be entertained," he reflects.

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Entertaining

"I look at what I do as entertainment. I understand the role of entertainment in society more than I used to. Yes, it is art and it's complex and all those things. But I don't want to put the art factor so high that it alienates people. I don't want to be one of those kinds of musicians where people come and sit like a stone in the audience and observe me torturing myself on stage," he says with a laugh. "It's not about that. I want the audience to have a good time and walk away from my shows feeling better than when they came in.

"It's basic entertainment values. That's maybe the most important thing I learned from Ray Brown—understanding that this is entertainment. It doesn't mean that we're up there telling one liners and tap dancing. What we're doing is still very...it's not easy what we do. It's very complex. It's done on a very high level. But I'm hopefully fun to watch and listen to. I learned from Ray it's OK to talk to your audience. It's OK to smile on stage. It doesn't cheapen what we do in any way to actually reveal to the audience that we actually enjoy what we're doing. I think that's one of the comments I get the most from the audience after shows. They say, 'Gosh, you guys look like you're having such a great time up on stage,' because we are.

Geoffrey Keezer

"This music, for me, isn't about putting on a three-piece suit, looking like an accountant who just got off work, and frowning on stage, acting like what we're doing is somehow something that you have to have earned a certain degree in toughness in life to get. Like if you don't get it, you're not hip enough. Forget that, man. You don't have to have a PhD to enjoy my music. If you can feel us, if you can smile along with us and you feel good at the end of the show, that's fine.

"If you study music and you can understand it on a deeper level, that's fine too. It's not a requirement."

Meanwhile, for the summer, Keezer is spending time in his San Diego home. "I really want to enjoy being home in this beautiful place, having some time to enjoy my family and enjoy life a little bit. I'll be working, writing music at home. Basically I'm writing music to finish this record. And probably planting a garden," he says with a laughter that comes easy for this generous musician, "which feeds the music. If I get outside and get some fresh air and work with the earth a little bit, I write better music."

Selected Discography

Yasukatsu Oshima, Yasukatsu Oshima with Geoffrey Keezer (JVC Victor, 2007)

Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group, Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006)

Ingrid Jensen, At Sea (ArtistShare, 2006)

Christian McBride, Live at Tonic (Ropeadope, 2006)

Geoffrey Keezer, Wildcrafted; Live at the Dakota (MaxJazz, 2005)

Jim Hall, Geoffrey Keezer, Free Association (ArtistShare, 2005)

Geoffrey Keezer, Falling Up (MaxJazz, 2003)

Geoffrey Keezer, Sublime; Honoring the Music of Hank Jones (Telarc, 2003)

Geoffrey Keezer, Zero One (Dreyfus, 2003)

Christian McBride, Vertical Vision (Warner Brothers, 2003)

Barbara Hendricks, Tribute to George Gershwin: It's Wonderful (EMI Classics, 2001)

Ray Brown, Ray Brown Trio: Live at Starbucks (Telarc, 1999)

Geoffrey Keezer, Turn Up the Quiet (Columbia, 1998)

Geoff Keezer, Steve Nelson, Neil Swainson, Trio (Sackville, 1993)

Geoffrey Keezer, Other Spheres (DIW, 1992)

Geoffrey Keezer, Geoff Keezer Trio: World Music (Sony, 1992)

Geoffrey Keezer, Here and Now (Capitol, 1991)

Geoffrey Keezer, Curveball (Sunnyside, 1989)

Geoffrey Keezer, Waiting in the Wings (Sunnyside, 1988)

Photo Credits

Color photos courtesy of Geoffrey Keezer

Black and white: Greg Aiello

Featured Story: Nadja von Massow

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