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Orrin Keepnews: Classic Producer of Classics

R.J. DeLuke By

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Neither I nor anybody in the world discovered Thelonious. You don't discover a force of nature. It's there. —Orrin Keepnews
This interview was originally published in August 2007.

As a city boy who took a liking to jazz music and extended it into a budding career as a journalist, Orrin Keepnews may have inadvertently veered into the record-producing arena that generated classic albums from a wide range of unforgettable artists. Maybe it was a fortunate accident. Maybe fate.

Maybe it's a word he uses about others: inevitable.

Born in New York City eighty-four years ago in 1923, Keepnews has lived a remarkable life in jazz during its golden years and amid most of its greatest innovators and interpreters. He can look back on album-upon-album with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner and so many more. As he bounced from the Big Apple to San Francisco over the decades, this city lad could count these valued people in music as colleagues and friends. Today, he could rest on his laurels.

But he doesn't. He's almost a country gentleman these days, away from San Francisco, a place that was home for decades, but still working, producing albums and heavily involved in the reissue game that this year resulted in the superb The Keepnews Collection. It's all in a day's work for the producer who seems unaffected by renewed interest in his life that has been spurred by The Collection. He's proud of his accomplishments, but lives in today and has an eye on tomorrow. Country gentleman? OK, maybe not quite.

"Actually, I'm still in the San Francisco area, says the affable and esteemed music executive. "We just, a few months ago, moved out of the city into an East Bay suburb, El Cerrito, which is just past Berkley. If you live in California, you might as well get a little ground under your feet once in a while. I came out here from New York over thirty years ago and have lived completely between New York and San Francisco—almost completely a city boy all my life. So it's nice for a change. I have an honest-to-god back yard. We have a lemon tree flourishing in it. Things like that.

In the meantime, he's doing what he has done for decades: listening to jazz, investigating new artists and projects worthy of producing, and keeping busy with reissuing classic sessions.

For reissues, 2007 is a big year for Keepnews. The Keepnews Collection from the Concord Music Group is a series of albums he did in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and originally released either on his Riverside Records or Milestone Records. All titles are remastered in 24-bit from the original master tapes and allowed the producer to revisit some of his accomplishments. They're released in batches of five records; two batches out and more to come.

Early this year came Thelonious Monk: Plays Duke Ellington (1955), Wes Montgomery's Full House (1962), Jazz Contrasts (1957) with Kenny Dorham, Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (1959) and Joe Henderson's Power to the People (1969). A second batch in June unveiled Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1959), Chet Baker's Chet (1959), Jimmy Heath Orchestra's Really Big (1960), Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' Caravan (1962) and vocalist Flora Purim's Butterfly Dreams (1973). All the discs, with the exception of Purim's, feature bonus tracks.

"As I said when the idea was originally thrown at me, you certainly can't insult me by making me the focal point of it that way, says Keepnews, "and it does give me the freedom to do an eclectic mix. Some of these are some of the obvious high points of my career and others are things I have a great affection for and in a number of cases they should have gotten more attention. So it's a nice combination.

Each CD also contains updated notes, remembrances of the artist and events that place a further value on the disks. Keepnews' writing is of value because of the "I was there historical factor, but also the style in which it's presented. It's plaintive and to the point, as well as colorful and honest. Contrast his forthright description about has disdain for Chet Baker, even while producing a fine album, with his fondness for the Adderley brothers. Both descriptions, like the others in the collection, are unabashed. It's interesting to read Keepnews' recollections as he looks back.

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