New Pianist in Memphis Mold

Career takes off for young jazzman Geoff Keezer

EVER since Geoff Keezer heard the music of drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, he dreamed of playing in that band. But now the jazz pianist no longer has to dream. He's touring Europe with the famous ensemble - a rare opportunity for an 18-year-old kid from EauClair, Wis.

It was even worth quitting school. ``It's like learning French,'' says the young Keezer, with Midwestern frankness. ``There's only so much you can learn from a textbook. Spending time in France is the only way.''

A few days before boarding the plane, Mr. Keezer performed in Boston with some of the hottest jazz pianists in the United States - and unflinchingly held his own. The event, entitled ``A World of Piano,'' brought 11 pianists together for a marathon of performances honoring the late jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. Keezer, the youngest player there, shared the spotlight with such luminaries as Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern, Joanne Brackeen, and James Williams. Mr. Williams announced that Keezer was an ``honorary member'' of the Memphis jazz piano tradition that Newborn established.

Though many of Keezer's musical idols were there, ``I tried not to let that bother me,'' Keezer said. He virtually attacked the keys with his semi-original tune ``Newborn Spirit.'' His hands swept over the full length of the keyboard - in Rachmaninoff fashion - with furious runs and pounding chords. The orchestral effect, says Williams, shows the influence of Phineas Newborn.

``I listen to recordings of the great piano and horn players,'' says Keezer, ``and try to copy what they're playing.''

Proper ``pacing'' of Keezer's musical output and exposure will be important, says Donald Brown, who played a duet with him. ``The record companies have a tendency to lean toward youth, and you can get caught up in the glitter and glamour.'' But ``I expect a lot of good things from him in the future.'' Keezer's first recording, ``Waiting in the Wings'' (Sunnyside Communications, New York), features his own compositions, backed up by saxophonist Billy Pierce and vibraphonist Steve Nelson, among others.

When Williams got to know Keezer about three-and-a-half years ago, it was the boy's attitude that impressed him. ``It's not that unusual to develop a strong technique at that age,'' he explains. But Keezer has ``a certain maturity and interest in the nuances of playing,'' he says.

His maturity extends socially, it seems. In September, Geoff set up his own residence in New York City. ``That's the place to be,'' he said.

``Yes, Mom and Dad were a little apprehensive,'' says Ronald Keezer, Geoff's father. ``But even though he's 18, ... he really knows how to take care of business.''

Geoff's stint with Art Blakey is ``pretty wonderful,'' says Mr. Keezer, who teaches jazz at the University of Wisconsin in Eauclair. ``Art's been known for fostering young musicians, like Winton Marsalis.'' The Keezers don't worry about Geoff, because ``he's with the guys in the band, and they all take care of each other.''

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