Piano virtuoso Geoffrey Keezer lives right here in San Diego, but like other internationally recognized touring artists, he rarely plays a hometown gig. That’s a curious and unfortunate fact that earned some degree of relief on Sept. 24, when Athenaeum Jazz at the Scripps Research Institute presented Keezer in a stunning series of duets and trios with vocalist Denise Donatelli, vibraphonist Joe Locke, vocalist Gillian Margot and Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Keola Beamer.
Duets are an exquisite method to experience Keezer, who is a keen listener and a master accompanist, made immediately clear when he and Donatelli launched into “All or Nothing at All,” balancing clear enunciation with irresistible groove. That commitment to groove continued with rollicking walking bass on Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low,” which is also the title of Donatelli’s latest album. She hit the gates running with pliant phrasing and daring passages of scatting, trading off against Keezer’s rhythmically solid phraseology.
For her last tune, the pianist brought out Locke for a sober reading of Sting’s “Practical Arrangement,” with each instrumentalist trading bluesy asides in support of Donatelli’s precise and aching interpretation.
“Daly Avenue,” reveled in the tightly arranged and intricate theme that leapt straight into a viscous left-hand swing and blurred-stick solo from Locke, who attacked his instrument with such force that a mallet flew out of his hands and into the front row of the audience. Keezer accepted the challenge and proceeded with a dense exposition that might have contained bits of “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” if I’m not mistaken.
Most impressive was Locke’s heart-felt tribute to the recently departed vibraphone icon Bobby Hutcherson, titled “Make Me Feel Like It’s Raining,” full of pensive tremolo and swollen, gauzy harmonies.
Gillian Margot made the duo a trio for a kind of fusion-ish look at “Black Butterfly,” which produced an amazing vibes exposition and some wonderful wordless vocals with just the right touch of melisma. Next up was an energetic romp through K.T. Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See,” featuring powerhouse gospel-tinged grooving from Keezer and an amazing range from Margot. Margot seemed most naturally connected to Stevie Wonder’s “Power Flower,” which proved a perfect vehicle for both her limber virtuosity and Keezer’s uncanny ease with pop-related material.
For me, the concert highlight came when Keezer invited slack-key guitar virtuoso Beamer to the stage for a drop-dead gorgeous reading of Roberta Flack’s disarmingly intimate “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which toggled between flowing arpeggios and the deep, smoky alto of Margot, which took my breath away.
The collaboration with Beamer was most satisfying simply because it felt so out of the box. The guitar master’s music is simple and unrepentantly diatonic, seemingly at odds with the constantly modulating propensity of Keezer, who was wandering far outside his bebop comfort zone.
But it worked, and it proved to be a wonderfully chill method to transition from density to a more meditative experience, especially on “Shiny Shell Lullaby,” which exuded a subdued melodic joy and “Kananaka,” which benefitted from the native Hawaiian percussion of Moanalani Beamer, who narrated and harmonized with her husband all while swinging an overhead orb connected to a taut cord with Keezer tinkling softly in the background.