CULT CLASIC: CALVIN KEYS-SHAWN-NEEQ.
Cult Classic: Calvin Keys-Shawn-Neeq.
Having founded Black Jazz Records in 1969, Gene Russell and Dick Schory’s new label released six albums during 1971. This included Calvin Keys’ debut album Shawn-Neeq which was the fifth album that the new label released during 1971. This was the most productive year of the label’s five year existence.
In 1971, pianist Gene Russell and percussionist Dick Schory founded Black Jazz Records in Oakland, California. It was no ordinary jazz label. Instead, they wanted their new label: “to promote the talents of young African American jazz musicians and singers.” That was only part of the story.
Black Jazz Records’ cofounders were determined that their nascent label would released an alternative to what they saw as the old school jazz that was popular at the time. This included albums that featured political and spiritually influenced music. However, spiritual jazz was just part of the Black Jazz Records’ story.
Between 1971 and 1975 the label released twenty albums that included everything from spiritual jazz and soul-jazz to free jazz and funk. Eclectic described the music that the label released
Black Jazz Records’ first release was Gene Russell’s sophomore album New Direction which was released in 1971. This was just the start of a prolific year for the label.
Later in 1971, Black Jazz Records released Walter Bishop Jr’s Coral Keys and then Doug Carn’s Infant Eyes. Other labels looked on enviously at the new label and artists were keen to sign to Black Jazz Records. That was no surprise.
Cofounder Dick Schory had founded Chicago-based Ovation Records which was a successful country and western label. It was providing funding for Black Jazz Records and was also distributing its releases. This gave the new label a much needed helping hand and meant it had an edge on its competitors.
The fourth album released by the label was Spring Rain which was the debut album from Columbus-born tenor saxophonist Rudolph Johnson.
This was followed in late 1971 by Calvin Keys’ debut album Shawn-Neeq. By then, the Bay Area guitarist was twenty-eight and was regarded as a rising star in the local jazz scene.
Calvin Keys was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on the ‘6th’ of February 1943. Growing up, he learned to play guitar and it was soon apparent that he was a prodigiously talented musician.
By the time he was fourteen, he was playing he was playing with Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson’s band. After this, he toured with saxophonist Little Walkin’ Willie and decided to relocate to Kansas City.
His decision to move was vindicated when he was playing alongside Preston Love who had been part of the Count Basie Orchestra. After this, he joined the Frank Edwards Organ Trio which was good practice when he headed out on our with some of the soul-jazz organ greats.
Calvin Keys heads out on tour with the legendary Jimmy Smith, Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes and Jack McDuff. The young guitarist spent much of the sixties touring with some of the soul-jazz greats. This was good experience for him and was akin to serving a musical apprenticeship.
In 1969, Calvin Keys decided to move to LA to further his career. That was where he met bassist Larry Gales who had just left Thelonious Monk’s band and was running an after-hours coffee shop. This was where the local musicians hung out and sometimes jammed. It was also where Calvin Keys met Gene Russell who said he wanted to start a record label.
By then, Calvin Keys was working with Doug and Jean Carn and also pursing a solo career. Gene Russell knew this and asked the twenty-six year old guitarist if he would be interested in signing to the label he was about to found? It didn’t take Calvin Keys long to agree and he would soon become one of Black Jazz Records’ first signings. The reason he had moved to LA was to record a solo album and now the dream was about to become a reality.
Having signed to the nascent Black Jazz Records, Calvin Keys began work on his debut album. He wrote three of the five tracks Shawn-Neeq, Gee-Gee and BK. The other two, B.E. was written by Owen Marshall and Criss Cross was penned by Art Hillery and Red Holloway. These five tracks were recorded by Calvin Keys’ band.
When recording of Shawn-Neeq began, the rhythm section featured drummer Bob Braye and bassist Lawrence Evens. They were augmented by Larry Nash on electric piano, flautist Owen Marshall and bandleader and guitarist Calvin Keys who arranged the album. Black Jazz Records’ cofounder Gene Russell took charge of production of Shawn-Neeq which was scheduled for release later in 1971.
Prior to the release of Shawn-Neeq, Calvin Keys’ debut album was well received by critics. Just like Black Jazz Records’ previous releases it was an album that saw jazz move in a new and different direction. This was what jazz needed. It need to constantly reinvent itself if it was going to stay relevant.
Shawn-Neeq was an example of this. The album opens with B.E. a breezy slice of fusion which is the perfect showcase for Calvin Keys’ skills as a guitarist. Behind him, the rhythm section provide the heartbeat as Larry Nash’s shimmering and glistening electric piano proves the perfect accompaniment. Later, a braying flute is played with power and freedom on this innovative and melodic example of early seventies fusion.
During Calvin Keys cover of Criss Cross he unleashes a breathtaking performance as he takes centrestage and plays his guitar with speed and fluidity. So does Larry Nash on electric piano when the baton is based to him. He enjoys his moment in the sun and matches drummer Bob Braye and Calvin Keys every step of the way. Later, the bandleader unleashes another virtuoso performance as he continues to reinvent the track and take it in a new direction.
Shawn-Neeq is a quite beautiful, laidback and summery sounding track. Sometimes, it’s got a ruminative sound and other times it becomes dreamy. Beauty is everpresent on what’s the highlight of the album.
The tempo rises on Gee-Gee which breezes along as the band play as one. However, it’s not long before Calvin Keys steps forward and delivers another spellbinding performance. This seems to result in the rest of the band raising their game during an eight minute track where elements of funk, fusion and jazz-funk are combined by this talented combo. However, the twenty-eight year old bandleader and guitar hero plays a starring role on a track he named after his pet poodle.
B.K. closes Shawn-Neeq and is quite different from previous tracks. The drums are insistent and power the arrangement along with flamboyant flourishes added along the way. Meanwhile Calvin Keys showcases his versatility and considerable skills. Just like other tracks there’s a fusion influence but his playing also rocky and funky as his guitar wah-wahs. Other times he plays with speed and fluidity as his fingers fly up and down the fretboard. Calvin Keys has saved one of his best performances until last on this genre-melting epic.
When Calvin Keys recorded his debut album Shawn-Neeq he was twenty-eight and had been working as a professional musician since he was fourteen. He had a lot more experience than many of his contemporaries and sounded like a seasoned and versatile musician. Seamlessly, he and his band switch between and combined disparate musical genres on Shawn-Neeq.
This includes everything from funk and fusion to jazz and jazz-funk to rock. However, it’s Calvin Keys that steals the show on Shawn-Neeq. It was the first of two albums that he recored for Black Jazz Records.
Three years later, in 1974, Calvin Keys returned with Proceed With Caution! However, Shawn-Neeq was the best album he released for Black Jazz Records. This was just the start of a long career.
Calvin Keys released thirteen albums during a career that’s spanned six decades, but his finest moment is Shawn-Neeq which was also the most accessible album that Black Jazz Records released in 1971.
Cult Classic: Calvin Keys-Shawn-Neeq.