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Kev Choice Versus COVID-19

April 23, 2020

Gathered with some of his closest musical confidantes in an uptown studio in mid-March, Kev Choice was in the midst of recording the first album by Black London, a project designed to celebrate Oakland’s abiding but gentrification imperiled African-American musical scene. The session with co-leaders saxophonist Howard Wiley and keyboardist Mike Blankenship was winding down when they realized that the increasingly stringent recommendations about minimizing social gatherings might put the kibosh on further attempts to document the project.

“We were kind of joking that this might be the last session we’re able to have for a while,” Choice recalls. “Every day there was a new development and the fears had started to grow. As we were winding up, I said let’s record some little interludes. I wanted something I could play with later to help document what’s going on.”

The next day Gov. Newsom issued the statewide shelter in place order and Choice’s mission became clear. As an artist steeped in hip hop and trained in jazz and European classical music, he’s long created music keyed into events as they’re unfolding. But even by the news-from-the-street standards of the most topical MC, Choice’s achievement on his new album Social Distancing is remarkable. Released via Bandcamp on April 10, it’s an album that isn’t so much ripped from the headlines as reported from the midst of the SIP pressure cooker.

Building on the already communal nexus of Black London, Choice reached out to an impressive roster of Bay Area talent, including artists like vocalist Viveca Hawkins, Karega Bailey from Sol Development, bassist/producer Drew Banga, drummer/producer Dame Drummer, and The Seshen’s Lalin St. Juste. Opening with “Morning Prayer,” a deep breathing affirmation led by Oakland restorative justice activist Kusum Crimmel, the album covers the emotional gamut, alternately reflective and seething, accusatory and healing.

Choice offers his own rap ’n’ rhythm benediction with “No Worries,” and takes a wide angle look at COVID-19’s impact in “Can’t Stop Me.” He seems to encompass every pandemic touchstone, from Zoom meetings and live-streamed performances to cancelled gigs. “Maybe it’s a time of reflection/connection with self and family and health and God and heart and soul and dreams,” he raps, as powerhouse vocalist Jennifer Johns delivers a swooping refrain that concludes “I’m gonna shine my light/You can’t stop me.”

“I want to document what’s going on and how we’re feeling,” says Choice, whose skills as a jazz pianist will be on display April 23 as part of San Jose Jazz’s Live From Home live-streamed concert series.

“If we’re going to be in the house, I thought I’m going to make an album in two weeks. It was almost like a challenge. I brought all my studio equipment home, and all my friends were home too. So every day I’m sending people music online, saying ‘what can you play on this?’ It went from an idea for an EP with five or six tracks to an album with 12. It just grew and grew and turned into a beautiful thing.”

Aside from the speed and the quality of the production, what’s most impressive about Social Distancing is the way in which Choice managed to manifest such a vital community in a moment of extreme isolation. He’s an artist ideally positioned for such a feat. Born in San Francisco and raised from infancy in Oakland, he started playing piano at 11 and made such quick progress that he gained attention as an East Bay prodigy. UC Berkeley’s vaunted Young Musicians Program (now an independent nonprofit called the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra) provided a conservatory education in high school, and he went on to earn music degrees at New Orleans’s Xavier University and Southern Illinois University.

Returning to the East Bay, he established himself as one of the most versatile and dependably inspired sideman on the R&B and hip hop scene, touring and recording with stars such as Ledisi and Goapele, Lyrics Born and Too $hort, and Michael Franti and Spearhead. When Lauryn Hill recruited him as musical director for an international tour in 2007, his reputation went global. At the same time, he and his musical peers have watched as the scene that nurtured them has steadily frayed, with players displaced by rising rents and the loss of venues.

Black London, a reference to Oakland’s best-known literary son Jack London, came together as a project for Choice, Howard Wiley, and Mike Blankenship to celebrate the legacy that shaped them. “The main thing is we’ve known each other for so long,” Choice says. “Me and Howard were in YMP as teenagers. Mike did the Lauryn Hill tour. Seeing how the music scene is changing a lot, we were very intentional with how we wanted to perform and present it. This is who the musicians in this area are and the level of musicianship we come up with. Howard can go and play with other artists in LA and New York. They have their teams and squads. We needed to push the Bay Area.”

While Black London’s album is still in the works, the collective ensemble made significant contributions on Social Distancing. There’s a delectable groove they came up with at the end of the mid-March session that Choice turned into “6 Feet Freestyle” and the searching instrumental closer “The Vaccine,” set to an insistent hand-clap beat. Black London drummer Dame Drummer mixed and helped produce several tracks, including “Take Me to Your Leaders” and “Shelter Displaced,” an extended rap by Karega Bailey filled with beatific wisdom.

“I helped him reel it in and hit the deadline,” Drummer says. “Kev does a great job keeping the talent connected, and he pulled out every trick you can imagine. The fact that all these different artists answered his call is a testament to who Kev is. I don’t think anyone else could have pulled this off. It’s a testament to what we can do. People are the real resource. Social distancing brought us closer together.”

In recent years Choice has eased comfortably into his role as a veteran cat who serves as a link to the innovators who made Oakland one of the nation’s most vital outposts for black music. Mentored by jazz masters like pianists Ed Kelly and Bill Bell and trumpeter Khalil Shaheed and R&B icons from Tower of Power and Tony! Toni! Toné!, “those cats were always pushing us to be dedicated to the music,” Choice says. “Now we are the leaders and educators for the next generation. They’re coming to our shows and we’ve got a sense of leading by example.”

With Social Distancing, Choice has set the bar at a dizzying height. Let’s hope the next generation doesn’t have to navigate a similar catastrophe. 

San Jose Jazz’s Live From Home, Kev Choice, April 23. www.facebook.com/sanjosejazz

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.