There aren’t a whole lot of guitarists who can claim fitting in with big names as diverse as Ray Charles, Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Smith and Bobby Hutcherson, but super sideman Calvin Keys has been there, done that. His playing style makes it easy to understand how he has been able to spend a five-decade career full of stints with just about any kind of jazz or soul heavyweight: rooted in jazz, Keys easily stretches across funk and blues without moving off that jazz center. His fluent, single-line vocabulary is a survivor of a lost art.
Whenever he has chosen to step forward from his backing musician role and take the reigns, he has impressed even more. That started with his 1971 debut Shawn-Neeq, a direct, unvarnished context for Keys’ understated sophistication as a performer, interpreter and songwriter.
These days, Keys has settled down into a solo career full-time; he’s been making records roughly every couple of years since 2000. Electric Keys, his third for Berkeley, CA-based Wide Hive Records, documents a seventy-year-old Keys who remains every bit as dynamic, diverse, and so damned tasty as he was when he dropped that underground fusion classic Shawn-Neeq on us some forty-two odd years ago.
As is the custom for Wide Hive recordings, the leader gets superb in-house backing from various members of the Wide Hive Players (as Keys’ contemporary Larry Coryell has gotten on his recent, excellent WH releases), and for Electric, they come in the form of bassist/pianist Matt Montgomery, trombone player Mike Rinta, saxophonist Doug Rowan and drummers Thomas McCree and Josh Jones.
This was the perfect setting to put Keys right back into 1971, and the horns are about the only thing that sonically separates his latest album from the earliest one, but it’s often a significant one; the horn arrangements add a Stax-like component that removes some of the jam tendencies of the debut in favor of a little more structure and melody. It remains as tough and loose, a credit to the balancing act producer Gregory Howe and the rest of the Wide Hive crew can wring from sessions executed much as it was done “back in the day.”
That old sentiment shines trough starting with the leadoff jazz-funk exercise, “You Know The Game,” as Keys’ old school guitar is a little remindful of the late Cornell Dupree, and he trades a few delectable licks with Rinta. Elmer Gibson’s “Love And Innocence” gets an all-acoustic backing, including the bass, but Keys’ genre-defying guitar, the song‘s looping figure and some pleasant horn touches pushes the song a little outside the straight jazz realm. On there and on “Rhubarb Jam,” Keys’ perfect sense of pocket adds an irresistible funk to these tunes. “Senior Moment” is a syncopated second-line riff played together by Keys, a flute and a sax. Keys breaks off and works the wah-wah pedal like the seasoned pro that he is.
Keys makes a couple of straight blues excursions with just the base trio, first with “Telegraph Blues,” a hard-nosed no-nonsense Chicago style blues. “The Hernia” is nearly identical, except that Keys adopts a tone with more acid in it. In both instances, he is attacking the form with the swagger of someone who has immersed himself in the stuff for a lifetime.
A couple of tunes are recycled from earlier Keys releases. “Shawn-Neeq” is a Keys original that is the title track from that old classic debut and with Montgomery again manning a standup bass for this waltz, it’s the jazziest tune of the set, highlighted by the song’s signature minor key descending bridge. “Touch,” taken from the 2000 album of the same name, is just Keys’ guitar, and his delicate touch and fine modulation probably does more to prove what a terrific guitarist he is than anything else on the album.
It’s often been said of even standout musicians who’ve been around a long time, that they don’t make records like they used to. That thought does not apply to Calvin Keys: if Electric Keys had been made during his career defining early 70s phase, it would have been heralded just as much as those records he actually did record during that time.
That doesn’t mean his new record can’t be heralded today, however.
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