1971: Calvin Keys - Shawn-Neeq

With every well-done reissue program — Blue Note, the back catalog of Nikki Sudden, and the Swell Maps — there are countless labels and artists whose output has languished or been subject to spotty availability. Gene Russell’s Black Jazz imprint, which issued a series of progressive post-bop and electric jazz LPs between 1971 and 1975, has seen brief reprieve on CD and the occasional bootleg, and the entire catalog was recently offered for sale on Craigslist of all places. Its subsequent fate sparked some online acrimony and is still to be determined. Tompkins Square — mostly an American folk, non-Western, and outsider music imprint — has stepped in to at least ensure that one of the label’s early classics is legally available. Alongside titles by bassist Henry Franklin, pianist Walter Bishop, Jr., and The Awakening, California guitarist Calvin Keys’ debut Shawn-Neeq is one of the strongest Black Jazz LPs. Recorded in 1971 with reedman Owen Marshall, electric pianist Larry Nash, bassist Lawrence Evans, and drummer Bob Braye, the program features five of Keys’ effervescent originals.

It’s no surprise, really, that Keys, who worked with such luminaries as Ahmad Jamal, Bobby Hutcherson, and Dr. Lonnie Smith, would find a home of sorts on Tompkins Square. Steeped in blues and R&B, his phrasing is deceptively simple and wrapped in a deep, muscular tone. “B.E.” opens the proceedings with a freer vibe, Marshall’s bass clarinet providing a throaty burble alongside open rhythms, but it’s only a coda to the cracking open-road groove and dusk-toned lace of the leader’s multiple choruses. There seems to be a healthy dose of studio reverb applied so that electricity and split tones have a warm, albeit distant quality. Keys’ dry, tenor guitar-like cells add a sense of depth and physicality to the title track’s breezy, flute-accented waltz; incisive notes skimming across loose and shuffling percussion. Tracks like this and “Gee-Gee” (which starts off the second side) might, in lesser hands, be cloyingly slick pop-jazz, but with Keys’ go-for-broke improvising and the rhythm section’s rough-and-tumble brinksmanship, the music on Shawn-Neeq remains incredibly arresting.

“B.K.” is the lengthy closer, blending grungy keyboard blats and a raw backbeat with Keys’ smartly robust drive, repetitive a la Grant Green, expansive and bluesy. Keys would record once more for Black Jazz with a larger group, 1974’s Proceed With Caution, and Russell also produced that album’s follow-up, Criss-Cross (Ovation, 1976). Keys mostly played the role of sideman for the next decade, returning to the bandleader fold after 1985’s Full Court Press (Olive Branch). Still busy in the Bay Area, Keys’ music is definitely deserving of a wider contemporary audience.


There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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