ISSUE #003: KEITH CHEEK

Keith Cheek – Multi-instrumentalist in Portland bands The Cheektet, Adebisi, and Jay Si Proof.
PORTLAND, OREGON | WEDNESDAY 1:22 PM

The enigma of music has always been a fascinating conundrum to explore. A seemingly ordinary person like yourself walks into a music venue without anybody raising an eye to you. You head over to the bar to order an adult-beverage, but the bartender might not notice you for a while. After finally receiving your drink you walk over to the section of the venue that is playing live music – that is why you’re here after all. There is a local band opening up the night in front of a mostly empty crowd littered with photographers, friends of the various bands, and a few good sports who came to hear some good music; they aren’t paying you any mind. There you are – enjoying the sounds of the night, unimpeded.

That is – until it’s your turn to go on stage and put your touch on the sounds of the night. Once you are standing up on stage your persona shifts; you went from no name bystander enjoying a night of music by yourself to provider of entertainment for the night. After your set is over, a crowd might follow. All of a sudden, all eyes are on you. The bartender remembers who you are now and asks if you have venue supplied drink tickets. Random members of the crowd walk up and ask you how long you’ve been performing and where they can follow you on social media. In that moment you transcend being an ordinary human and become something closer to a purveyor of feeling and salesman of entertainment.

The praise that accompanies being a talented musician, poet, actor, athlete, or any other major form of public entertainment is narrow-sighted. Not due to a lack of skill or talent, but because we forget that the majority of the time they aren’t on stage (or social media) performing, they are living an ordinary life like everyone else.

I’m really interested in your perspective as a musician; as a multi-instrumentalist you play the flute and the saxophone. Do you play any other instrument?

KEITH: Right now I’m picking up on the clarinet. It sucks playing the wind instruments because you have to have a super tough curve on your hand. That leads to arthritis and I think I’m getting a little bit of carpal tunnel, so there’s a lot a pain [that goes along with] playing that instrument for too long.

Do you think about the long-term health consequences when you are picking up a new instrument?

KEITH: Well, it’s too late already at that point. It’s already in progress. Sometimes I want to be like, “well, why would I want to pick up [learning] a new instrument if I can’t play it in the long-term,” you know? I’ll hear people tell me that I sound good playing the flute, but I hate to say it, I’m not going to be able to play the flute forever. I just physically won’t be able to do it.

When you pick up a saxophone, how do you find your creativity through playing that instrument?

KEITH: I usually go through different time periods to find various musicians that I like [in that moment of time]. Then I attempt to emulate that in a way. Recently I’ve been listening to this dude Billy Harper, and he’s been making kick-ass albums since the 70s and 80s. He plays that kind of nonsense stuff that I like to play, but he does it way better than I do. So I try to listen and see how he’s playing. Sometimes I go through episodes where I don’t even practice, I just listen [to music]. Then I can feel other people’s playing come out when my ideas [breakthrough].

That’s really interesting because we have these mirror neurons in our body. So when someone is watching something there are neurons firing in their brain as if they were actually performing whatever action they are watching. So, when the individual goes out on their own time and practices the action they witnessed, it may not be fine-tuned because they haven’t had repetition with that motion, but nonetheless, they are still able to perform it. Is that the approach you take when you perform though? Do you listen and watch material and then when it’s time to get funky you just make it happen on stage?

KEITH: Yeah, pretty much. I’ll be playing, and usually when I’m playing, I’ll choose something that’s already worked out. When I play something that is already worked out, that’s mindless. I’m just buying myself more time to create or find another idea. While I’m doing that, I’ll think of an idea that I’ve heard that I like and try to see what I can do with it. I’ll just try to follow the shape of a line that I like. But like you said, sometimes it’s not always refined, but I’ll still give it a go (laughs).

In that moment you transcend being an ordinary human and become something closer to a purveyor of feeling and salesman of entertainment.

Derick G

When you are performing a song and you are up for a solo, do you already know what you are going to play? Or do you just figure it out on the fly?

KEITH: When I play with Adebisi, we’ve been playing together for two-years now. I know the form and I know what works and what doesn’t work. I have some stuff figured out that’s kind of stored in my memory bank. I can copy and paste it on the go and then build upon that. But, with my project, The Cheektet, I’m listening to everything that’s going on with the rhythm section. And then Kiran [Raphael] (on piano) will pick up and he’ll usually do these extensions with rhythmic ideas. I feed off those ideas and then it’s sort of like we are going back and forth with everybody. It’s like a conversation, you don’t always know where it’s going to end up, but it’s still a collective of ideas.

Even though you may have pieces of a solo that you can always add in there, it won’t be the same solo every time, correct?

KEITH: No, hell no, it’s not going to be the same every time.

Keith Cheek playing with Adebisi at the 2019 PDX Jazz Festival

Do you think that life experience shapes a musicians play style? For example, contrast a musician who grew up attending music lessons from the age of five years-old and had security in their craft versus a musician who picks up an instrument as an outlet for the stress that they have going on in their life. Do you think those scenarios shape different styles of play?

KEITH: I think it brings a completely different dynamic to a musician’s play style. Sometimes you can hear a person play and you can feel the pain come out in their music – crying out for help. Then you’ll have some players who have such a warm and hugging sound that is very comforting, you know? The difference between musicians who play really clean and musicians who play soulful stuff that’s a little rough around the edges puts a different taste on their music. That’s probably one of the reasons why I play differently than other musicians, you know, just going through some shit.

Let’s say you’re setting up for a Cheektet gig and you’ve had a long day. You’re going home to relax and whatnot, how do you take your mind off the music? And what is important about having that time off?

KEITH: I enjoy my down time and I try to make the most of it when I have it, because when you don’t have it life can get a little stressful. I just chill and smoke weed, maybe play some Playstation with my friends and blow some stuff up (laughs).

What do you like to play on the Playstation?

KEITH: I’m a big Battlefield fan, but not the new ones. The new ones kind of suck. I like Battlefield 4, it’s classic. I feel like it’s the hardest skill base on it. [The new Battlefield games] took off the learning curve and now you just see the bullets fly straight. There’s no bullet drop, so it’s dumbed-down to make it easier for the regular consumers.

There’s a real stigma towards video games – it’s decreasing now because you can make real money playing video games – but, when I was a kid I was always told that playing video games would lead to a losers lifestyle. I think there’s some sort of creative outlet that comes with playing games. It’s kind of like an interactive movie, in a sense. I think for a lot of people who don’t want to sit mindlessly and consume a movie or other means of entertainment, video games are a good way to work on the dexterity of your fingers and hands and also work on one’s problem solving capabilities.

Do you ever attribute any of the problem solving that is done in your musical performances to the video games your have played throughout your life?

KEITH: I would say that my problem solving has come much more from music than it has from video games, but when you’re playing and mess up a note you have to think fast and fix it.

You can be playing at a show and mess up, but if you maintain your composure nobody will ever notice. It’s when you get demonstrative that people will notice that somebody messed up. How difficult is it to rebound from messing up a note?

KEITH: (Laughs) I can keep a neutral, serious-like face on most of the time so if I do mess up, my face isn’t going to change. You keep that poker face on and you’ll be alright.

Keith Cheek playing with Jay Si Proof in Portland, OR

What is the hardest part about booking gigs for yourself?

KEITH: Really, it’s just getting the ball rolling. You have to find somebody who will give you a chance if you are just getting started. The big thing with me is that I have connections with everybody and when I pitch a bill, it’s gonna be with some quality cats. But, [venues] will also ask where your [content] is at. I can promise [my material] is good, but how can the [venue] just take your word for it?

If you had to choose between reading charts and playing freely in a band, what would you prefer?

KEITH: I like to play arrangements better. There’s no reason why you can’t memorize an arrangement, in my opinion. Some things are harder to memorize than others, but if you can put the work in to memorize the music then you’re playing that complex music off of the dome.

How do you feel about subbing in for a band at the last minute? How do you learn the bands music so quickly?

KEITH: Oh, I can do that. I practice sight-reading. I used to not be the best player, but I could read the snot out of things. Sight-reading is when you look at a sheet of music and you can read it down pretty good your first time looking at it. It’s something that you have to work on though. It takes constant practice, but honestly there are only so many rhythms and only one right way of playing things. So once you do it enough times, you’re not caught off guard anymore.

At what point in your music playing tenure did the pre-performance nerves stop?

KEITH: I wouldn’t say it happened right away. I don’t know. When I started playing in Adebisi around two-years ago I’d get so excited. I might get those pre-gig jitters you know what I mean? Maybe sometime last year I [looked at it as being] just another day in the office and I’d go and get it done. But sometimes coming into [a gig] without that excitement will make the performance feel mundane in a way. I try to find ways to stay motivated and excited about what I’m going to play.

What aspect of a musicians lifestyle would the average person assume is much more glamorous than it truly is?

KEITH: The fact that we get free drinks. Man, the music business puts the worst vices upon you and promotes the worst habits. It’s almost like they don’t really have your best interest in mind. Like you said before, [as a musician] you probably have another job on the side, so obviously you aren’t making that much money with the music. Money would help. So instead of paying us a living wage they would rather feed us liquor.

It’s as if they try to incentive you with free drinks and a free meal.

KEITH: You’d be lucky to get a free meal, man.


Thanks for reading. Keep up with Keith and his band The Cheektet on Facebook.

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