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Open Season

Brother Ray and 'nahenahe jazz' highlight Stanford Jazz Festival's opening weekend

By Geoff Wong

THOUGH IT CAN be a tricky proposition to qualify an art form, it's safe to suggest that Quality Music should have either talent or inspiration at its core and be realized with either authoritative authenticity or sincere appreciation. That said, the opening weekend of the 2005 Stanford Jazz Festival is a textbook example of QM in fine form.

On Saturday night, "A Jazz Tribute to Ray Charles" will be presented featuring saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, a member of Charles' band 1954-1964. Vocalist Kim Nalley, guitarist Bruce Foreman, pianist Tammy Hall, bassist Michael Zisman and drummer Akira Tana round out the top-shelf ensemble. Those who saw last year's Jamie Foxx showcase Ray will recognize Newman, who appears on two recent Charles-related tribute recordings. He released his own, I Remember Brother Ray, on the High Note label in January. Newman also appears on two tracks on That's What I Say, guitarist John Scofield's June 7 release, which also features contributions from Mavis Staples, Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Warren Hayes and young gun John Mayer.

Sunday moves from Ray Charles' Southern roots and Newman's Texas upbringing to beyond the West Coast. Pianist Geoffrey Keezer, slack key guitarist Keola Beamer and hula dancer-vocalist-percussionist Moanalani Beamer perform a new style, "Nahenahe Jazz," in an evening concert. The three will also give a separate "Musical Introductions: Hawaiian Music" talk and demonstration that afternoon.

A one-time San Leandro resident, Wisconsin native Geoffrey Keezer has had an inspired career in which he's explored jazz tradition while trekking into new territory. The last pianist in legendary drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messenger group and a member of bass great Ray Brown's trio, Keezer has gone on to play in equally progressive-minded Christian McBride's band. On his own, Keezer's interpreted pieces by Björk, My Bloody Valentine and Ryuichi Sakamoto, played bass guitar in a punk band and performed live with an electronic musician. For his last album, 2003's Falling Up, he connected with the husband-and-wife Beamers for the first time.

"I tracked Keola down through his website," says Keezer. "And through much coaxing and extension of as much aloha as I could muster, we managed to convince Keola to come to San Francisco to record with me.

"Originally we were just going to record one song, which was 'Pupu Hinuhinu'— his mother's song that every child in Hawaii knows. We recorded that and had some time left in the studio. It was feeling really good, so we did one more song, 'Kaulana Na Pua,' which means 'famous are the flowers.' Our friendship just developed from there."

The favor was returned, and Keezer recorded on Beamer's Mohala Hou: Music of the Hawaiian Renaissance album. The pair has since recorded a collaboration album together with special guests from both Hawaii and the mainland.

"This is going to be a first major show performing the material, it's actually great that it's at Stanford. It's the best possible place to do it," says Keezer. "There's a big islander population in the South Bay. And Stanford itself is traditionally a place, like Berkeley, that's open-minded to new things." Though Keezer's lived all over the States and in Japan, he's never been an official Hawaiian resident. Still, that doesn't keep him from appreciating the music and the culture.

"I've certainly visited there. It's one of my favorite places to go. I've learned about the musical tradition mainly just through my own research," he says. "What I understand for myself is that I'm not Hawaiian. And when I approach Hawaiian music, I understand that I'm not going to ever understand it in a way that a Hawaiian would.

"So for me, what I'm attempting to connect with or touch in that music is the universal beauty in music or art that transcends any kind of cultural and national boundaries," he adds. "In Hawaiian music, there's a quality called nahenahe, which means roughly 'gentleness.' And that's something that you can only really understand if you go there and spend some time with the rain and the trees and the mountains and certain qualities of the air and the land and the people. It's all connected with the place, with the island."

One of the cornerstones of jazz is improvisation, which he says isn't at the core of traditional Hawaiian music, from what he understands. So Keola will play a more or less through-composed part, "and I kind of dance around it in my own way."

The common dominator between traditional Hawaiian and jazz music is melody, Keezer reckons. Though nahenahe jazz isn't a branch of the traditional jazz tree, per se, it is the result of a traditional Hawaiian and a jazz player bringing their ideas together.

"I have a jazz background, therefore I improvise in a certain way and with a certain language," he explains. "For example, I don't play chords or lines that are as dissonant as something I'd play in a pure jazz situation. Jazz has a lot of dissonance, and those qualities don't always fit with the more pure sort of consonant beauty of Keola's music, so I adjust what I do to fit the style more. It's more like I'm just improvising melody, really."

In addition to his work with the Beamers and his own solo and trio playing, Keezer continues to play with McBride and has been doing duo gigs with masterful guitarist Jim Hall and will soon be touring in saxophonist David Sanborn's band. He credits his stylistic openness to his musician parents, who didn't pressure him to be a musician.

Keezer's open heart has found an ideal home in nahenahe jazz.

"I think this music we're doing with Keola really externalizes this word 'aloha' and what it means. Keola talks about it a lot, about aloha, because it doesn't just mean 'hello' and 'goodbye.' It's a word in Hawaiian that has several layers of meaning.

"'Aloha' ultimately comes down to universal love, kind of unconditional love. Keola and Moanalani are two people who really embody that spirit in the way they live and the way they do their art. And the way they do their art is really a small part of who they are, which is incredible," he concludes.


The Stanford Jazz Festival 2005 opens this weekend (June 25-26) with 'A Jazz Tribute to Ray Charles' and 'Nahenahe Jazz.' Visit www.stanfordjazz.org for complete schedule. Tickets are available through Ticketweb or by calling 650.725.ARTS.


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From the June 22-28, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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