“I’m an instigator,” says Paul Keller. “I just can’t sit still.” Ann Arbor’s busiest string bassist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, he’s acquired a reputation as a veritable jazz pyro. Driven by an insatiable urge to incite jam sessions and bring jazz before the public wherever possible, he endlessly celebrates the tradition to which he has dedicated his life.
When not at home with his family in Saline, teaching at Wayne State, or advocating for the next generation of jazz musicians in Ann Arbor, Keller circulates from gig to gig throughout Michigan or further afield, encountering great musicians every step of the way. He has recently increased his efforts to bring some of these artists to Ann Arbor “to share them with my hometown jazz support group.” A series of three concerts, aptly titled “Paul Keller Presents,” continues this month at Kerrytown Concert House, that famously small and intimate space where, he happily points out, his well-traveled upright may clearly be heard without amplification.
In early August, Keller and drummer Pete Siers inaugurated the series with Grand Rapids-based singer and pianist John Proulx. The house was full, and the atmosphere congenial and playful. Keller’s claim that Kerrytown has the best grand piano in the state was seconded by Proulx, who patted the Steinway after playing on it for nearly two hours and told his audience “this thing is like a Ferrari.” On September 28, Keller and Siers return to KCH with pianist Terry Lower of Battle Creek. Keller describes him as a thoughtful, peaceful human being who quietly flies below the radar and whose primary inspirations are master improvisers Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. But he’s distilled these and various other mainstream jazz piano influences down to a clear essence that is his alone. Keller compares this stylistic distillate to the highest-quality maple syrup; a fitting tribute for this “homegrown” Michigan pianist.
When I mentioned Lower to Siers, he expressed awe-tinged respect for the pianist’s ability to channel the influence of Tatum, who pioneered early modern jazz by nonchalantly demonstrating the inherent possibilities that lay within the chord progression of every tune patiently waiting to be liberated and enlarged upon. Lower’s personal style and refined technique may invite comparison with the sounds of Peterson, George Shearing, or Monty Alexander. These blended inspirations are sure to please. You’ll want to be in the house on September 28 to listen for the magical influence of Tatum rising up from that famously fine Steinway grand.