Steve Keller - alto saxophone, soprano sax, flute; Larry Blackshere - vibraphone; Brian Cook - piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Kenneth Jenkins - bass; Bernard Primeau - drums
Though it flew under the radar in the mid '70s, the local San Francisco modern jazz group Carnival packed a significant punch during its short reign. Co-led by East Bay vibraphonist Larry Blackshere, a member of the psychedelic folk-rock band It's a Beautiful Day, and Montreal drummer Bernard Primeau, this crackling quartet included alto saxophonist Steve Keller, pianist Brian Cook and bassist Kenneth Jenkins. Their October 10, 1975 engagement at the Great American Music Hall opens on a pensive, probing note with an unnamed original by altoist Keller. Beginning with the plaintive cries from Keller's horn, the piece gradually builds to a kinetic modal vehicle that sounds jointly inspired by pianist McCoy Tyner and vibist (and San Francisco native) Bobby Hutcherson. Primeau, one of the top drummers on the Canadian scene, immediately shows his high level of proficiency by fueling this track with his adept time-keeping and creative fills. Bassist Jenkins contributes a powerful solo against Primeau's subtle groove and pianist Brian Cook's spacious comping while Keller and Blackshere add potent solos of their own to the compelling mix.
Jenkins' funky Latin jazz flavored "Spiderman" has Keller switching to flute and doubling a luminous line with Blackshere's vibes before breaking free for a soaring solo over the insistent groove. Cook comps effectively on piano behind him, then switches to Fender Rhodes electric piano for a dynamic solo. Bassist Jenkins contributes another fluent, robust-toned solo. Blackshere follows, channeling Cal Tjader with an energized solo over the infectious son montuno section before the piece resolves to a hush. Next up is Jenkins' melancholy ballad "Mrs. Haskins," which has Keller summoning up lush alto tones and Blackshere digging deep and delivering a stellar, blues-soaked solo against Cook's sparse, thoughtful accompaniment. On his remarkably fluent and fertile solo here, Keller demonstrates why he might've been considered a talent deserving of wider recognition. And pianist Cook imbues his piano solo on this evocative number with much soul.
Keller's "Stipulation" is a post-bop romp full of challenging, twisting unison lines in the head that recall Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance." The composer showcases his considerable alto chops on this surging number while bassist Jenkins fuels the uptempo groove alongside Primeau's hard-driving swing factor. This modal romp, a highpoint of Carnival's set, also features an accomplished, swinging solo from Blackshere on vibes and a formidable bass solo from Jenkins. From that energized number, they settle into Keller's gorgeous "Destiny," which nimbly shifts gears from uncommon lyricism to rhythmically-charged Latin jazz burner. Cook's Tyner-esque piano solo here is outstanding while Keller offers more inspired alto work on his impassioned solo. And they close out their set with the 12/8 "Haitian Marketplace," a polyrhythm tour-de-force for drummer Primeau as well as a showcase for Keller's Trane-inspired soprano sax work.
Since documentation of this criminally under-recognized though abundantly gifted group is scant (if indeed anything exists on record at all), this GAMH concert is the rarest of commodities for SF jazz collectors and modern jazz aficionados alike. (Milkowski)