Listening in on Tyler Brooks at the 2013 Stanford Jazz Festival

Omaha-native and Oakland-based guitarist Calvin Keys is the definition of a serious musician.

Quiet, husky-voiced, and concealed behind dark auburn shades, Keys wore a steady, sagacious cool that warranted the opening line of Tuesday night’s program which frankly and endearingly read: “Calvin Keys doesn’t call a lot of attention to himself.”

And true enough to that insight, following Stanford Jazz Festival Founder-Director Jim Nadel’s lead, Keys entered the stage, greeted his audience with a few waves, placed his foot firmly onto the base of his stool, and counted off the Quartet’s first tune, “Witchcraft”—swung andante, and without introduction.

Not that diving into one’s set is uncommon at concerts, especially at those in an idiom as candidly enigmatic as jazz. It’s just that when a Calvin Keys foregoes introductions it’s the sign of a radiant mystique, lasting with its bearer from start to finish.

And introductions did finally come, but by that time Keys had already primed us well on his attitude and aesthetic: it’s all about the music. In other words, if his eyes ever lifted from the guitar, his audience was keen to the fact that those eyes would soon be settling right back.

And by no means was the hum of the guitarist’s temperament without harmonies. The three other wonderful components of the Calvin Keys Quartet, including organist Brian Ho, drummer Leon Joyce, and flautist/saxophonist Art Maxwell, each followed Keys’ suit (no pun intended on “suit,” though it’s certainly worth noting that all the ensemble members looked like they were pulled right out of a Men’s Warehouse ad.)

Ho, pedaling right on the money with each note of his bass lines, colored each song with choice chords and lively solos that sometimes waterfalled in flight-of-the-bumblebee-esque runs down the organ. Maxwell, who according to Nadel had not performed at the Festival “since his Stan Getz days,” added bursts of savory color to any tune he put any of his various instruments behind.

On tunes like “Windows” and Randy Weston’s “Little Niles,” the flautist/saxophonist charmed each melody’s “head” with magical trills that could very well change seasons, and then swooned calmly under his light blue beret during his bandmates’ solos. (In the jazz idiom, the “head” section, or “head” for short, refers to the part of the song that contains the lead melodies and rhythmic motifs a song is most known for. A jazz ensemble will customarily “play the head” before proceeding to the solo section of their improvisation.)

Joyce did nothing but impress the whole night, exercising immaculate technique and unquestionable ability to optimize his drum set from the fieriest of tunes like Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots” to the most minimal tunes like Burt Bacharach’s quiet bossa, “The Last One to Be Loved.”

And Keys, with eyes still firm on his guitar’s neck, was never startled once by all his combo’s textures and milieus. Perhaps once or twice I saw him shift from the middle of his seat to the edge, but that was about it.

Now settled and familiar enough to the Quartet’s sound, I checked on the audience to see how others were acquainting themselves with the ensemble. Amidst many who would ultimately spend the majority of the night with their eyes open—as if on constant watch for secrets of the ensemble’s telepathies-of-cool to slip through their body language—there were an occasional few who would hold their eyes closed, swaying with predisposition to that which was purely sonic.

Visual listening

Now, in my experience, live jazz can feed a bias to a visual kind of listening: eyes scanning everywhere about the stage as if all those sounds were actually visible in acoustic space-time. I often wonder if it’s common for the jazz listener’s ear to prod along to bridges, solo sections, and other formal aspects of the music in order to keep track of all those imaginary coordinates. This mystical Quartet could have certainly benefitted from such “visual” listening, as they handled the sheer thunder that sometimes roared from their ensemble sound with remarkable ease and composure, never once flinching to it.

Nonetheless, during an interesting moment in the ensemble’s second tune, Chick Corea’s “Windows,” I again looked back into the audience to study my romantic peers, each opting out of sight to access what seemed to be accessible only via hypnosis. Curious and fascinated, I closed my eyes too, and, like a whirlwind swooping into my ears in the song’s 3/4 time signature, every timbre in the Quartet’s blend came together—organ, guitar, flute, and drums—as one, undifferentiated sound. The result was riveting.

I departed from a moment in Maxwell’s shimmery flute solo and reopened my eyes to meet what felt like a different concert hall, a different soundscape, and a different synchronicity between Ho, Maxwell, Joyce, and Keys. Without a doubt, all the band’s secrets were hiding on the other side of sight; that’s what a handful of listeners had discovered that Tuesday night at Campbell Recital Hall. It also explained the slow, wavy dances that several audience members were doing in their seats, myself certainly now included in this group.

Pyrotechnics

On the flipside of all those serene and meditative moments, however, were the concert’s pyrotechnics. This was most exemplary with their last tune, “Tres Ritmo,” actually pulled from Ho’s 2011 release, Organic. In the first wave of soloists were Ho and Keys, Ho a master of his own song with wailing bop-blues shapes in the upper reaches of his organ and Keys an acrobat in his brilliantly angular and arpeggio-powered lyricism.

Last to go was Joyce, and oh what a moment that was. The drummer had already established a reputation for playing dynamic and teeth-gratingly suspenseful solos the whole night, but this time he drove his command of tension and release into the red zone.

Consistent with those other solos, he started with flawless, uninterrupted drum rolls, eventually calling in the support of his prominent hi-hat chuffs to lock in his count and tempo. Dozens of syncopated shapes would usually go popping from his snare when his foundation was set, but this time Joyce’s drum-scape was so excited that the rate seemed to approach hundreds.

Boiled fireworks

Now drunk with thrill and at edge of my seat, I watched him vanish into a mirage, his form—from his upper back to his wrists—growing taut and tensed away from a snare drum that might as well have been a great, steaming and lidless pot. Flurries of drum rolls burst into daring rushes upon his crash cymbals, unpredictably phrased snare patterns, and breakneck poly-times and syncopations that blasted from ands-of-one and ands-of-four.

In other words, Joyce’s solo sounded like what you’d get if you boiled fireworks. “Ah,” I realized. “That’s what’s in the pot.”

Two quick strikes to the snare and the drummer was done, to which the audience’s boom of ovations was so loud and unanimous I barely heard the ensemble return to the head of the tune.

Things settled back to normal and the drummer returned modest head-nods to the audience, reminding you that coolness was that from which everything stemmed and that it was still all about the music. And Keys, always quiet in his focus and always hipper than your dad, led the group out—out of the tune, out of their set, and on to their next gig.

tyler brooksTyler “EAGLEBABEL” Brooks is a Stanford undergraduate and interdisciplinary performance artist based in music. He spends countless hours thinking about how the jazz idiom, with all its off-beats and off-histories, has informed contemporary manifestations of music and identity—including his own. Though a jazz pianist himself, he is honored to assume a different creative role in writing about the 2013 Stanford Jazz Festival and Workshop. Brooks studies identity, diversity, and aesthetics at Stanford’s Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CSRE) program.