Album Liner Notes
Release date: September 29, 2017
Label: Legacy Recordings/ Mass Appeal Records
Written by Don Cheadle
Who is the Mugician? Abracadabra! A puff of jet fuel exhaust (sorry, earth), a screech of tires on the tarmac and we set down, embarked on another leg of the Miles Ahead press tour, zig-zagging across the world. The place: Austin, Texas. The date: March 17, 2016. The gig: a music panel assembled by the South by Southwest Music and Film Festival. A small crowd of reporters and screening attendees has assembled and we begin fielding questions from them about the creative process. How did we decide what music to use? Do we think Miles would have liked the movie? How did you recreate Miles’ sound? Presto! Like water on hot grease, the answer to the last question bubbles up and out of me quickly. “That’s all Keyon.” And it was. Many a day on set we struggled with limited hours, budget, manpower or resources… You get it. Independent filmmaking. But the pain of those hard days was all washed away by the beautiful experience had in post, working with the artists, laying down all the tracks, watching Keyon doing things “over picture” that weren’t actually possible. Here he was, tasked to play over my neophyte fumblings, attempting to match my inspired but often uninformed fingers and make it all sound effortless, cool, confident, Miles. In Keyon’s case, the hand is quicker than the eye and it all came off without a hitch. The proof? Check the pudding. I told the crowd, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. Key’s not just a musician, he’s a magician.” Without missing a beat, the master improviser chimed in from the end of the table. “A Mugician.” Laughter from the audience. A knowing kind. One of instant recognition and agreement. The kind that comes from something feeling good in your gut. I smile at Keyon but he’s already somewhere else inside, moved on from any adulation from his throwaway line, eyes a bit inward, looking like he’s wondering if there might be something more to that word he just coined than simply a punchline. Is it the beginning of something starting to form? His next feat, perhaps? Let’s see… Nothing up my sleeve… The Mugician, Keyon’s second solo effort, easily moves through different genres and expressions as effortlessly as a performer with intimate knowledge of the tricks of his trade, hard-earned through the experience of stepping fearlessly into the musical ether.
The album opens with “Voicemail,” one of many voicemails his mother has left for him through the years. Pouring grateful spirit into this composition, he turns it into a love letter back to her. After all, he is a man who has walked through the fires of life by the grace of her supreme, unconditional love and her complete belief in the purpose of his path. Mugic, indeed! Put to music rife with Keyon’s soaring refrains, you feel his grit and his immense heart coming through every note echoed by six of his sixteen siblings singing on the track. “The Mugician,” the title track on the album is a jaunty, reggae-meets-Afrobeat anthem built on top of rhythmic guitars, heavy keys and rumbling drums. The illusionist creates a kaleidoscopic of stacked sounds to offer a warm sonic dimension. On Keyon’solo, he throws motifs back and forth to himself; up and down, side to side like a juggler. “The mugicians are the healers, the number one top feelers.” Aah…that’s what we need right now. Someone who can heal our anxious hearts. The reflective “MB Lament” by this child of Ferguson, MO, inspired by the infamous, senseless death of Mike Brown, meditates on the emotions, the fears, the struggles and hopes of a people at a time and in a place often overlooked and devalued. It’s no accident that Keyon quotes “St. Louis Blues” in the opening bars of his solo. Keyon’s improvisations are a call to action crying over beds of smokey, contemplative, dissonant string orchestrations by Darin Atwater. “When Will It Stop?” answers the calling of “MB Lament” with the obvious question—how much longer will xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and, the granddaddy of them all, racism separate a nation of people who are mostly the same? This is the quintessential question consuming society today. “Wayfaring Traveler” is a labyrinth, a heart journey, where Jermaine Holmes and Georgia Anne Muldrow explore being lost on the road of love, and eventually “found” by pianist Robert Glasper’s soothing resolution. And when Keyon melds with singer Bilal Oliver and rapper Big K.R.I.T. on “Stay This Way” and hip-hop royalty Pharoahe Monch on “Her Beauty Through My Eyes,” sometimes lending his own voice to the movement, he shows an old soul artist who understands both following and leading, stepping back to let others explore the themes and ideas presented, then stepping in purposefully, his exceptional playing embellishing, extrapolating, extracting optimal value and meaning. 2 + 2 = big blue sea! “Ethereal Souls” floats an uncomplicated melody that benevolently lingers to calm us before the storm. “Broken News” pulls together real headlines over one week this past May to set the stage for “Circus Show,” a show-stopper featuring Gary Clark Jr. meant to make us all stop and think about the line —“what the hell IS going on…America” right now?, penned by singer/songwriter Andrea Pizziconi. The satirical blues—a lament for this current absurd political quagmire. Finally, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, guitarist Nir Fielder, and pianist Shedrick Mitchell take whimsical solos on “Bubba Rides Again.” An outro perhaps, but as it fades we imagine the conversation between the horns carrying on far into the horizon as the sun sets on the note slingers, but only for a brief respite. A song that was written and forgotten about initially, on the way out of the house while rushing to the studio, thankfully, this gem was rediscovered.
Keyon’s effort on this first outing is about using everyday life as a medium for a profoundly intricate musical exploration. As artists like Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, and John Coltrane have all conveyed, “music is a reflection of life,” a visceral form of communication. This album is a narrative, a social conversation to promote love, empathy, and understanding above bias and hate. Harrold asks, “When will it stop?” Issues of poverty, class, climate change, gun violence, police brutality and the importance of health care access –when will they not rob our peace of mind? This album has been a long time coming, until now…when Keyon’s life experiences and the crises of the times intersected to create a fever pitch scream. Or a virtuosic blow of his horn. This is the living testament of an artist who has been chomping at the bit for so long and now has finally cleared the path ahead to speak his mind in full. A shaman of sound and spirit. “The Mugician.”