Anyone who's stepped inside a Kansas City jazz club during the past several decades has probably run into Stan Kessler, the impish trumpeter known for amusing pranks and soulful solos.
Kessler has played music in Kansas City for 40 years, serving as the jazz scene's crafty institutional memory and passionate conscience. He's seen a lot of ups and downs, but his new album, "Skywatcher," makes a career-defining statement, showcasing his formidable talent at the same time as it demonstrates the vitality of the regional scene.
He has, after all, learned what it takes to maintain a busy schedule.
“One of the reasons I’ve been successful is that I understood early on that you had to find a blend between what you want to do artistically and what people will enjoy listening to,” Kessler says. “Art and the commercial aspect have to go together if you’re going to stay in the game.”
That’s a nifty trick for a jazz musician.
“I try to imagine that the person in the audience is hearing jazz for the first time and what would I want to hear if I was out there and never heard jazz before,” he explains. “Being a jazz player, there’s a lot of intellect involved. But you still have to connect with people on an emotional level.”
During his appearances at Kansas City venues such as the Blue Room and the Green Lady Lounge, he's careful not to compromise his art.
“I try to play music that people will want to hear," he says, "but also that musicians want to play.”
Kessler has achieved that balance in a multitude of contexts since he began honing his craft as a member of the Kansas City Youth Symphony in the late 1960s. He’s played delicate chamber music with guitarist Beau Bledsoe in an ensemble called Passport; rearranged television theme songs in Stan Kessler’s TV; paid tribute to the jazz great Horace Silver in HoraceScope; joined the brass section of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra; and explored popular music of South America with Sons of Brasil.
"Skywatcher" features three relatively new groups: Playground, Crossroads Quartet, and Parallax.
Playground is a collaboration between three of Kessler’s longtime peers, pianist Roger Wilder, bassist Bob Bowman and Todd Strait.
“There’s a generational connection there,” he says. “There’s also an instinctive element with Bob, Todd and Roger that’s very unique and very exciting and fun.”
Kessler’s band mates in Crossroads Quartet — pianist Andrew Ouellette, bassist Karl McComas-Reichl and drummer Brian Steever — are younger.
And Parallax, which features Wilder and Bill McKemy on bass and sousaphone, is powered by two drummers: Steever and Ryan Lee.
That unusual percussion configuration was the result of a happy accident. Because every working jazz musician in town has a complicated schedule, Kessler uses different drummers for different gigs. Those busy schedules also limit rehearsal time, so Kessler had Steever and Lee come to his house to learn some of the music at the same time. It was a eureka moment.
“This sounds great!" Kessler thought, wishing he could have both guys play together at more gigs. "It’s like having a drummer with eight limbs.”
Kessler continues to marvel at the “younger energy” of the powerful drumming tandem.
“It’s like balls of fire: Here we go!”
The charismatic Kessler, who is celebrated for his amusing antics almost as much as for his stellar playing, draws on a complex temperament for "Skywatcher." Its compositions range from a gorgeous ballad titled “Gratitude” to a rhythmic steamroller called “Juggernaut.”
“Each song is like a part of me, a different aspect of my personality,” he says.
Accenting that emotional range is a high level of playing that verifies Kessler’s assertion that “there’s a wealth of talent in this town” and validates his decision to remain in Kansas City rather than testing the waters in jazz capitals like New York and Tokyo.
“I don’t see myself as a big-city guy,” Kessler admits. “I really like the relaxed feel of Kansas City. And I like the fact that it’s not so crowded, not so noisy, and not so polluted. I can get out in the country in 30 minutes or 40 minutes and feel like I’m out there in the woods and walking and communing with nature.”
He used to have regrets, he says, thinking maybe he should have moved to New York.
"That’s in the past now," he says. "It feels good to still be here and be in the game and still be relevant.”
As "Skywatcher" demonstrates, Kessler is more relevant than ever.
KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.