Kessler compares his soloing to an exploratory drive. "The structure and the destination may be unknown," he says. "But if you get yourself out of the way of the music, the road and the scenery are supplied; all I'm doing is steering, deciding which lane to take, how fast to go. If you go too far or too fast, you go off the road."
His unofficial homecoming at the Richmond Jazz Society's November meeting at the Upper East Side Lounge was a revelation to some. Others travel considerable distances to find out where Kessler's musical gifts have taken him. The only way to hear him is live; that's not just a recommendation, it's a practical fact.
His career is defined as much by offers declined as accepted. In the '70s he passed on Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band; in the '90s he told Dave Matthews that his band didn't really need a piano. He left Woody Herman's band because, as a vegetarian, he was starving from the fast food menu on the road; another highly visible gig was abandoned because of the group leader's heroic appetite for drugs.
What may seem like a series of astonishingly bad career decisions instead traces a highly principled artistic quest, an acceptance of responsibility for the uncanny way his talent was revealed.
"You have to rely on the muse in music," Kessler confides. The start of his musical life has echoes of the mythical creativity-bestowing demigoddesses. When he was 9, two years after the sudden death of his father, Kessler had a dream about music. He woke able to play, first his toy xylophone, later a friend's piano. When his mother heard him, she arranged for lessons, but those soon ended when his teacher discovered that instead of struggling to master the student arrangements, he was adding logical new notes of his own. Four decades later, that is the full extent of his formal musical education.
It's a story Kessler is reticent to share, in part because he is uncomfortable with even the hint of self-promotion, but more because he believes his sudden abilities might be a breakable spell, a mysterious compensation for the loss of his father. Whatever the source, the gift transformed his life. Although he never took another lesson and even started studying pre-law at college, he ultimately recognized that he was destined to be a musician.
"It's not about me," he says. "The experience is only valid when it's experienced with other people." His goal is to find common ground with the audience by tapping into what is universal. While the speed and intelligence of his playing can be challenging, it has no tinge of the spiky, self-conscious innovations of the avant-garde. "I try to keep it all in focus; creativity comes from the restrictions, knowing how to break through without falling into anarchy."
He's recorded so much unreleased material over the years that he jokes his first release could be a box set. He appears on a handful of CDs, notably the recordings of the Jazzmaniacs, the longtime Richmond quartet founded by Kessler and fronted by baritone sax player Glenn Wilson; they were something of a house band at Bogart's from the early '90s until Wilson left for the Midwest in 2001.
All those years he made the long drive down from Baltimore. Now that he's back in his native Richmond, his schedule is filling up with gigs this month, 15 and counting, including a performance at The Upper East Side on Dec. 17 and a reunion of the Jazzmaniacs at Blues Alley in Georgetown on Dec. 22.
In originality, imagination, commitment and execution, there are few players anywhere who are his equal. In a world blinded by fame, it's rare to find an artist driven by the serious responsibilities that come with talent a word from a biblical parable about the entanglement of gifts and obligations. S
The Steve Kessler Trio plays the Upper East Side Jazz Lounge and Sports Bar, 7103 Brook Road, on Dec. 17 at 9 p.m. Tickets cost $7 at the door. The trio will also be at Orbitz in Charlottesville on Dec. 28. This show starts at 10 p.m., no cover charge. Glenn Wilson and the Jazzmaniacs appear at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 22. Go to www.bluesalley.com for info.