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Published: 2013/11/23
by Brian Robbins

Calvin Keys
Electric Keys

Calvin Keys Electric Keys (Wide Hive Records)

Wide Hive Players Turnstyle (Wide Hive Records)

Cool Bay Area indie label Wide Hive Records has cranked out over 30 albums since their formation in 1998, focused mainly on jazz and funk. For label founder/owner/producer/engineer/ and musician Gregory Howe (heck, he even shot the photos used for the covers of the albums we’re about to discuss), this has to represent some serious blood, sweat, and tears – but when you listen to the music coming out of Wide Hive, you have to figure that there are quite a few smiles tucked in there, as well.

Two recent releases by the label feature the same basic pool of talent, collectively known as the Wide Hive Players. Along with Howe on B3, the Players consist of Matt Montgomery on keys and bass; Calvin Keys on guitar; saxophonist Doug Rowan; trombonist Mike Rinta; and drummers Thomas McCree and Josh Jones. Songwriting is principally handled by Howe and Montgomery with Keys contributing, as well. Listening to Turnstyle (credited to the Wide Hive Players) and Calvin Keys’_Electric Keys_, however, one gets the feeling that arrangements and charts could only take these players so far … the rest went down in the heat of the moment – and lucky for us, there was tape rolling when it did.

Turnstyle begins with the slow sideways stagger of “All The Right Wrong Notes” – a piano-and-horn-propelled piece that never loses its footing (but playfully refuses to resolve itself, either). The following cut, however, is “Left Coast Sangria” – and all the opener’s rumpled-overcoat-clad lurches are quickly forgotten as breeze-off-the-bay rhythms and lovely Latin-flavored guitar work by Keys gather you up. The yin/yang of those two back-to-back cuts is a perfect example of the Wide Hive Players’ ability to shapeshift and work with the sonic canvas of the moment; just as they can pull off gentle near-psychedelia (ride out the wind-up of the title track – including the glide down the back side) or that fine, fine funky stuff (“Stained Glass Tribal Mask”).

If you didn’t get enough of Matt Montgomery’s rubbery bass in “Winding Up”, you can burrow right back into it on the “Winding Dub” remix (credited to Jake Break and Kidd Grid); Rowan and Rinta blow wild and unfettered on “Stacking Wax”; “Changing Times” features cool rhythm change-ups that tell a story rather than interrupt it; the horns tend the fires while Keys goes off exploring on “Suddenly Overcast”; and “Where The Sidewalk Begins” takes things out with all hands shining: growling bass and a slick drum foundation keep things grooving while Keys scatters flurries of notes all over, under, and around the horns. (If you’re a sucker for sassy-assed horn, then Rinta’s break at about the :50 mark will be pure ‘bone porn for your ears.)

All in all, Turnstyle is a neat sampler of what the Wide Hive gang is capable of doing. It’s obvious these are some talented players, comfy with themselves – and each other; blessed with the ability to make the listener just as comfortable.

On Calvin Keys’ Electric Keys, the 70-year-old six-string master steps into the foreground of the Players’ lineup – but think of him as a player/coach who makes the whole team shine.

“You Know The Game” leads things off with the band laying down an easy groove for Keys to work on; a gentle push on the chorus builds up to a nice soulslide back into the main theme each time ‘round. (Dig Keys’ trade-offs with Rinta’s trombone on the break.)

Montgomery’s fat bass powers the angular spiral of “Love And Innocence” with Keys taking off on a solo run that scales the fretboard multiple times, punctuated by light-fingered almost mando-like descents. When Rowan’s breathy sax enters at the 5:29 mark, it manages to turn the song’s final two minutes into hipster caramel. The funky drum backbone of “Backyard” is interrupted periodically by a cool little call-to-arms figure by Keys; “Rhubarb Jam” is one big, thick, dollop of fun with Keys getting to pop, tickle, push, pull, and yank the strings as the band chugs on a groove (wait for the horn break at 1:19!); and whatever the inspiration was for the name of “Senior Moment”, the music itself is anything but – this is 6 minutes and 48 seconds’ worth of liquidy, sexy rumble-tumble with a big ol’ New Orleans-flavored hip sway.

Keys can lay it down like Stevie Ray Vaughan if he so chooses (“Telegraph Blues” and “The Hernia” are stripped-to-the-bone Texas-style blues that feature just bass, drums, and guitar); he can sear both sides of a tune like an unleashed Mike Stern (the title track); and he can out-Benson George Benson (the lovely “Shawn-Neeq”). Throughout it all, however, he never resorts to mimic or cliché – what you hear is right-now, soul-to-fingers Calvin Keys – surrounded by a circle of talented friends.

Right up to the album-closing “Touch”, that is: here we experience just Calvin Keys and his guitar, all sweet tone and perfect dynamics, beautifully captured in the moment.

Here’s what I think: lay hands to both of these albums, put ‘em on back-to-back, and hit “play.” What you’ll have is close to an hour and a half’s worth of some fine, fine music.

*****

Brian Robbins keeps a bottle of Left Coast Sangria over at www.brian-robbins.com

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