(This interview was done during the 2017 Blue Note at Sea jazz cruise.)
Ethan Iverson: Geoffrey, of all the people in my peer group, I can’t think of anyone else who has played with a longer list of older masters and younger turks than you. We could talk forever about all sorts of things. But, since we are both from nearby small towns in Wisconsin — when I was in high school, people would ask me, “Are you going to be the next Geoffrey Keezer?” — I thought for this next hour we could go back and cover some of your unusual early history.
You must have been attracted to music at a very young age.
Geoffrey Keezer: Both of my parents are musicians and music teachers. My mom is a classical French horn player — she also taught piano and voice — and my dad is a jazz drummer. In UW Eau Claire, my dad was one of two people in the jazz department, although he taught classical percussion as well.
EI: Your father, Ron, once told me that when he was a student at Berklee, he had the slot with Alan Dawson in between Gary Burton and Tony Williams.
GK: Yes, he did, because Gary was still studying drums then, too. My dad was actually in the room when Alan Dawson told Tony Williams, “There’s nothing more I can teach you, you need to go on the road (with Jaki Byard).”
I was born in 1970, and my dad and mom had a really hip record collection. As a kindergartener my favorite three records were Weather Report Black Market, Chick Corea The Leprechaun, and Oscar Brown Jr. Sin and Soul. I played all three of those records over and over until there were no grooves left.
My first instrument was actually an Arp 2600 synthesizer. I was really fascinated with electronics, not just what Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul were doing, but what I heard on film soundtracks as well. That final scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the mothership comes down and they have that Arp 2500 with two or three manuals, and they play the now-famous theme and all the permutations: I thought that was the coolest thing.
There was a student of my father’s at the university that agreed to teach me how to program this instrument. At the time, the only people who had modular synthesizers were stars like Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, and university laboratories. Once a week after school (in kindergarten and first grade) I’d walk across the bridge to the university and go into this room with this Arp synthesizer and he’d teach me how to program it. There was a four-track tape recorder. I have those tapes! You can follow my mental musical development: the first was “lasers! and R2-D2!” and by the end, I was doing Bach 3-part inventions. (Another record I loved was Switched-on Bach by Wendy Carlos. I was trying to do that, really.) Those recordings were incorporated into a collaborative electronica album I made in 2009 called Montre Echo: The Near Forever.
The synthesizer was keyboard-controlled, but I didn’t know how to properly play the keyboard, so someone else said, “You should get this kid piano lessons.”
Actually I played a lot of different instruments back then, especially drums, but I stuck with piano because I wanted to write my own music. I call my own piano playing “advanced arranger’s piano,” because when I’m soloing or comping I kind of approach it like I’m writing an arrangement.
EI: Who were your piano teachers back then?
GK: Did you ever go to Shell Lake jazz camp?
EI: Of course!
GK: Well, there was John Radd, he was pretty important for me.
EI: John Radd! I remember him. Yeah, good jazz pianist. He had a wacky version of “In the Mood” that was bitonal or something.
GK: He could really play. He lived in Wisconsin and taught at River Falls. Ironically, considering where we are talking, he loved cruise boats and did gigs on those all the time. He was cool.
And then I had a classical teacher from Eau Claire university, Donald Patterson. He hated jazz, never came to one of my jazz recitals, but came to my defense once. When I was about 15, there was a state composition contest. I wrote a piece and recorded it with a trio. It was a straight-eighths thing but there was improvisation in it. Most of it was written, but they wrote back saying the improvisation disqualified it. Patterson wrote back to them saying, yes, this is absolutely a bona fide composition. I was happy that he did that, especially since he hated jazz!
He gave me his entire collection of Art Tatum records. “I never listen to these things, you should have them instead.”
EI: Did Patterson have any kind of specialty himself?
GK: He was into Vincent Persichetti and one of the only people who played Persichetti’s music. Do you know Persichetti’s mirror system?
EI: I’ve fooled around with a mirror few etudes but they didn’t catch me musically. I prefer hearing Stanley Cowell improvise mirror stuff. I bet you could improvise that way as well!
GK: I have tried that a little bit, just for fun.
EI: How much did you work on classical repertoire?
GK: I was pretty bad at it. I really wanted to practice jazz instead. In some way I understood the value of learning to play the piano properly, that’s what practicing classical music was to me, at least then. However, when I got to Berklee, my classic teacher there Ed Bedner. He would spend a whole lesson on one or two measures of Chopin or Beethoven, and that was the first time that anyone made me aware that there were different touches at the piano. I didn’t know anything about that! I thought you just pressed the keys and the sound came out.
I used to be in a band with three other pianists: James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, and Harold Mabern. To end sometimes we would close with “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing” and we’d kind of do musical chairs at the same piano. That was when I learned that four different guys could make one piano sound like four completely different instruments, just from the touch. Some guys have kind of a percussive, almost brutal touch, others have a legato touch. McCoy Tyner’s touch is completely different than Chick Corea, who is completely different from Herbie Hancock, who is completely different from Keith Jarrett.
Over the years I’ve tried to develop a big sound.
My first major gig, Art Blakey, had a lot to do with that, just because of the sheer volume Art produced on stage. There were also no monitors on stage. I was just pounding the piano the whole time. In the winter, when it was dry, I would get cracks in the ends of my fingers and they’d be bleeding at the end of the gig. Art loved that. It was like boot camp. The more you were bleeding and in pain, the better he liked it! He used to punish the horn players. If their chops were breaking up, he’d say, “Good! Play another chorus!”
GK: In more recent years, I’ve tried to develop a big sound without banging. I think my touch has gotten more legato, but I can still do that kind of staccato McCoy thing if I want to.
I’m 46. One of the comments or complaints people would make when I was younger was that I didn’t have any particular identity. Benny Green told me one time — in a nice way, because he is a super nice guy — “When I listen to your playing, I hear one bar of McCoy, one bar of Chick, one bar of Bobby Timmons…I’m never really sure who it is.”
I took that to heart.
EI: For whatever it’s worth, Geoff, I can recognize you in a blindfold test, no problem! In fact, when Ted Panken gave me a blindfold test a few years ago he played me something of yours and I guessed it correctly right away.
GK: Thanks! I still feel like I’m a bit of a chameleon, and I can play a lot of different styles. If asked to play in a genre I’m not familiar with, I will do the research and learn how to be reasonably authentic. I can have that kind of studio player mentality, because I want to work.
At the same time I’m still trying to figure out what is my “thing.”
EI: Is there an instrumentation that you might feel particularly individualistic in?
GK: In fact, I’ve gone back to playing solo quite a bit.
EI: Few modern jazz pianists have the technical equipment to make modern jazz solo piano work the way you can.
GK: I love playing trio too, and in fact just recorded a trio album, but solo is where I can really be me. I like being the bass player! Like maybe my left hand listened to different guys than my right hand did. My right hand is all the cats: Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Tommy Flanagan, Herbie, McCoy, Chick. My left was busy listening to Ray Brown, Bootsy Collins, and Jaco Pastorius. Both sides have different but equally authentic information.
EI: That makes a lot of sense.
I remember when I visited you in high school, you had piles of transcriptions and could play them accurately, including McCoy Tyner “Wave” from Supertrios, Herbie Hancock “Prince of Darkness,” and Monk “It Don’t Mean A Thing.” I was astounded.
How did you even start getting all that knowledge together? How did you start transcribing? Do you have perfect pitch?
GK: No. I have fairly good relative pitch.
EI: I’m sure! What was the first solo you transcribed?
GK: Thelonious Monk on “Straight, No Chaser,” from a record live in Japan. I transcribed it the grand staff because somebody, I think Wynton Marsalis, told me, “You have to do both hands.” Then I did Herbie Hancock on “E.S.P.”
I had guidance. John Radd, other people I ran into or managed to hear live. I transcribed all sorts of people, horn players too, Woody Shaw in particular. I analyzed him, trying to figure out why it sounded “out.” I’d realize that it wasn’t that out, that it was the tritone sub of the next chord that is coming or something. Everything he did made sense.
I transcribed Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Clifford Brown, Miles…I did all the solos on Kind of Blue, just to see how they all fit together. I’m an only child, so sometimes I forget anything else is happening but me: After I learned all of Kind of Blue, I played the Bill Evans intro to “So What” during a high school jazz band rehearsal in the middle of another tune, simply because I’d just learned it and was excited about it. The band director was mad!
I was just trying to figure it all out. I remember I took some of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, like the C minor prelude, and wrote in chord changes. On some Herbie solo in F minor he was playing an E major scale, and then I realized it was really like a C7 altered chord, that’s why it worked.
EI: Who did you see live?
I heard Mulgrew Miller when I was 15 when my family took a road trip to New York. I saw Mulgrew Miller play solo piano and this was the defining moment: “This is what I want to do.”
EI: Where was Mulgrew playing solo?
GK: A little restaurant in the West Village. I sat right next to the piano keyboard, wide-eyed, my jaw dropping to the floor.
The other signal gig was McCoy Tyner trio gig in Minnesota with Avery Sharpe and Louis Hayes.
EI: I saw I night of that trio at the Dakota as well! I think that was almost the first time Lowell Pickett had music in a club.
GK: Something else I want to mention: Not only was I impressed with how great these guys were musically, but how nice they were as people. I was just a kid, but when I went up to McCoy he was gracious and talked to me. Mulgrew too. I remember meeting Count Basie when I was ten years old. Basie was also super nice. I thought, “Jazz musicians are just the coolest people on the planet!”
When I was 18, I had just moved to New York, and went to see Herbie’s trio with Buster Williams and Al Foster at the Blue Note. I had met Herbie once before and maybe he had kind of an idea who I was. Eager young kid that I was, the moment he finished playing and got offstage I ran up to him: “Mr. Hancock, Mr. Hancock! Can I ask you some questions?”
He said, “Ok.”
I had them all ready: “What are the last four chords to in ‘Dolphin Dance?’ What’s the turnaround on ‘Footprints?’ And what’s that dissonant voicing in ‘Eye of the Hurricane?”
He said, “Oh! Well, here,” and takes me up on stage, literally within ten minutes of finishing the set. People are still sitting at tables and settling up, and gives me a private lesson in front of everybody. He showed me all that stuff.
EI: So what’s the “Eye of the Hurricane” voicing?
GK: He explained it like three diminished chords. He said that back then he used to just sit at the piano and experiment all day long. One day he stacked a G diminished chord over a F diminished chord, then added an A diminished chord on top of that. He took a few notes out of each. From bottom to top it is Ab, D, G, Bb, Db, F#.
EI: And F in the bass, of course.
GK: Blam! That’s that chord. Herbie told me, ‘Yeah, sometimes I just look at the piano, and I’ll play a shape without knowing how it will sound.”
He shared his philosophy with me on stage at the Blue Note. That generosity really struck me and stayed with me my whole life. “If Herbie Hancock is that cool, who am I to put on airs?” So whenever a young musicians comes up to ask something, I try to make time for them.
Chick Corea did that for me as well. They don’t mind sharing, because they know that can just keep making up more cool stuff.
I’ve probably seen Herbie play more live than any other great jazz pianist. The thing that gets me about Herbie is that he seems completely free. It seems like he can play anything at anytime and at any moment in any context.
Do you agree?
EI: I was just talking about this with Glasper. Of course I agree, but I’d also say that Herbie’s agenda is also to play within the band. Unlike, say, Keith Jarrett or Oscar Peterson, Herbie doesn’t have to always play a virtuosic solo.
GK: That’s true! Yeah, and he knows all the genres as well.
EI: Let’s go back again. At some point I know you met James Williams.
GK: That was when I was 16. I met him at a NAJE jazz convention in Atlanta, and he gave me a piano lesson at like 2 AM. Again, a really nice guy! Didn’t charge me, just hung out, we found a piano in a hotel ballroom at 2 AM. I played some stuff for him, and he said, “That’s cool, but have you heard of Phineas Newborn?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, you have to check him out.”
So I went home and bought A World of Piano. That blew my mind, that changed my world forever. Phineas had chops comparable to Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, but he also had a concept that was uniquely his. He could really orchestrate, for example he could play the whole Dizzy Gillespie big band arrangement of “Manteca” on the piano. You could hear the trombones, the trumpets, the saxophones, every line was there. He had chops for days but didn’t overuse them. He was soulful, he could play the blues, he used the Ravel Sonatine as an intro to “Lush Life,” he was just such an incredible musical genius.
EI: I like what a great bebopper he was. That version of “Celia” is one of the best Bud Powell covers. Do you like the two later albums with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones?
GK: Yeah! I love that stuff. I love all of Phineas. His “Cheryl” is a masterclass in block chords. He goes through four or five types of block chords within two choruses.
I like thinking about block chord concepts. Red Garland had a thing. Bobby Timmons had a much lower left hand: check out that solo on “Moanin’” and see where Bobby Timmons’s left hand his. George Shearing was much closer, with all the pitches contained within an octave. Today, the best block chord guy I know that is out there is Dan Nimmer, he does block chord solos that are mind-blowing.
Anyway, for me, Phineas was my guy. A lot of pianists are coming out of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, that kind of way of playing, and that’s totally cool, but for me it was Phineas Newborn, Bobby Timmons, Hank Jones, Ahmad Jamal…I was really into the guys that used both hands.
EI: Did you play much stride?
GK: I’ve gotten hired to play stride. For some reason Wynton Marsalis thinks I’m good at stride, so he has hired me a few times. I do my best, I certainly shed it. We did a Mary Lou Williams tribute, where I had to play “Nightlife.” Blazing! Then there was “Prince of Wails” [originally mis-titled as “Prince of Wales”], an early Count Basie track with Bennie Moten. In those days Basie was a monster stride pianist.
If you understand Basie that is coming out of stride, it helps you understand his later minimal style. He’s still playing stride but it really distilled. It’s like just the accents remain from what the right hand would be doing if he were striding.
I saw Oscar Peterson play a few times after he had a stroke, and it was kind of the same thing. Everything was still there, except that you hear mostly the accents, and not all the notes in-between. You can hear that the accents are so important to that bebop language.
EI: You know, I am afraid that I can be a bit of an Oscar Peterson doubter. I mean, he’s great of course, but I keep thinking I’m not hearing the right records or something. Do you have some favorites?
GK: Even more than me, Benny Green would be the right person to talk to.
EI: Yeah! I asked him, Benny told me to listen to Easy Walker, sometimes issued as Action. It’s got a deep groove for sure. But I’d be curious to hear more about what Oscar really speaks to you.
GK: The Oscar records I heard and listened to a lot were from the London House, like Put on a Happy Face. There’s also We Get Requests. I asked Ray Brown about that one. “Hey Ray, you know that Oscar album We Get Requests? Did Oscar actually ever play requests?”
Ray said, “Hell, no!”
I actually met Oscar when I was working with Ray at the Blue Note. He was very encouraging and such a nice guy, even though I backed up at the bar and stepped on his foot by mistake. I apologized profusely and he gave me a kiss on the cheek, saying, “How you doing, youngblood?”
Ray also told me that he and Oscar would play practical jokes on each other. Like on a break, Oscar would de-tune Ray’s strings or Ray would put a handful of ball bearings in the piano so that they’d roll around and make noise.
EI: So how did you get out of Eau Claire and get to meet Oscar Peterson and stuff? We are still missing some steps.
GK: James Williams really did it, really got me a career. Although he had Boston connections, he was in Brooklyn by the time I was in Berklee. I would take the train down and hang out with James, where he took me around to all the different clubs and introduced me to people like Walter Davis Jr., Art Farmer, and Tommy Flanagan. One night he took me up to Mikell’s on the Upper West Side to see Art Blakey.
I was already really into Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I loved all the records. A bunch of us in high school played that repertoire and had begged my dad to drive us in a February blizzard to Appleton, Wisconsin, where I saw Blakey for the first time, the edition with Mulgrew, Terence Blanchard, and Donald Harrison. This was another pivotal moment!
When James took me to hear Art Blakey, he told Blakey I was good and should sit in. Blakey said “OK!” Benny Green was very gracious to give me his seat for a couple of tunes. I knew the repertoire, we played “Moanin” and “Mayreh.” Afterwards Blakey came up and kind of offered me the gig. But James said, “No, Geoff, there’s time. Go back to Berklee, get a degree, keep practicing.”
Benny Green, by the way, was another terrific mentor. We got together once or twice. He never charged me for a lesson; mostly we would transcribe together, like the Herbie solos on “Speak Like a Child.” Benny was great, he would spend an hour on one or two bars to get every detail.
I was back a Berklee when Blakey came through to play the Regattabar. Again, I went down, and, again, I sat in, this time playing “Ruby, My Dear” and something else. This was 1989, before anyone had to worry about identity theft, so when Art walked up and said, “Gimme your passport and social security numbers! You are going to be Jazz Messenger soon, and I need your information” I just gawked and gave him my numbers.
My good friend Kenny Rampton (who now plays trumpet in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) decided he wanted to move to New York. So one day he pulls up outside of my apartment in his jeep and says, “Get your stuff, we are going to New York.”
I thought, “Why not?” and we moved to New York, just like that, and found an apartment in Williamsburg, which in those days was scary and cheap. There were huge roaches and rats in the apartment. I don’t know how he got my number, but within a week of moving to New York, I get a call from Art Blakey’s tour manager saying, “Art wants you to start with him at Sweet Basil next month.”
It really was a law of attraction. For three years in high school, I had a band that played Art Blakey music. After that, I was in the “Art Blakey ensemble” at Berklee led by Billy Pierce. So when I met Blakey, I had done the homework and there it was. It felt so natural. I was grateful to be there but also it was like, “Cool! This is where I’m supposed to be.”
By the way, when I was in that Art Blakey Berklee ensemble, the Iron Maiden ensemble was next door. That was fun for me, too, because I was a big metal-head when I was younger. I loved Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, all that stuff. To me that music had the same in-your-face energy as a big Bach organ piece or the Count Basie band. Testosterone and macho!
Right after I joined Blakey’s band, I got a call from Miles Davis. Al Foster had recommended me to Miles. I was torn because Art Blakey was my dream gig at the time. I had just gotten my dream gig w/Blakey then Miles called. I hung out with Miles a couple of times when he was living at the Essex House. I never played with him. That was ’89/’90, right when he was doing Amandla.
Miles told me, “You are too comfortable with Blakey. You need to be in my band, because the only way you are going to grow as a musician is if you are uncomfortable.”
The only reason I didn’t want to play with Miles was that keyboard role at the time was essentially a pop gig. There wasn’t a lot of improvisation, it was mostly playing parts off the record.
If this were now, I might have said something different. But at the time, I was in Blakey’s band and really getting a chance to blow, and that’s what I wanted.
But that one sentence, “the only way you are going to grow as a musician is if you are uncomfortable,” was so deep, and explained so much about his musical philosophy and his personal growth. I realized that every time Miles got comfortable musically, he fired his whole band and got a new one.
I’m sad he passed away before we had a chance to reconnect. But I thought about that a lot, the idea that uncomfortable situations can be an opportunity for growth. That can be socially, or politically, or whatever.
EI: There’s that old saying, “Crisis is opportunity.”
Geoff, we should really go for another hour but I gotta run.
GK: Cool! Nice to catch up with an old Wisconsinite and see you on the boat!