As a follow-up to his highly impressionistic Thelonious Monk tribute album, 2016’s Steelonious, New Jersey resident and lap steel guitar ace Mike Neer has his way with jazz standards from The Real Book on Keepin’ It Real. Recorded in his home studio during pandemic lockdown, his fresh takes on classics like Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” Horace Silver’s “Peace” and “Nica’s Dream,” McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt,” Duke Ellington’s “African Flower” and others find Neer handling all the upright bass, ukulele and percussion parts as well as lap steel guitar in a near one-man-show.
The tunes on Keepin’ It Real are enhanced by contributions from a host of Neer’s colleagues, all of whom sent in WAV files to add into the mix during the album’s production phase, including vibraphonist Tom Beckham (“Passion Dance,” “Nica’s Dream”), accordionist Ron Oswanski (“Peace”), guitarist Will Bernard (“Witch Hunt”) and flutist Anton Denner (“Stolen Moments). Pianist Matt King, a Neer colleague for 30 years, offered a vibrant melodica solo on Clare Fischer’s “Pensativa” while guitarist Chris Crocco added some tasty six-string work to Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues.”
Neer recorded all of his lap steel guitar parts on Keepin’ It Real on an instrument that once belonged to the legendary Sol Hoopii, the Hawaiian lap steel guitar virtuoso who helped popularize the instrument during the 1930s (his 1933 song “Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii” was quickly covered in hit versions by Ted Fio Rito and his Orchestra, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and the Ben Pollack Orchestra). “For lap steel guitarists, Sol is the guy,” said Neer. “He’s the Hendrix, the Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt all wrapped up in one.”
Neer explained the genesis of this album and the epiphany that inspired it: “Because of the pandemic, I had no gigs and didn’t touch my instrument for several months. I was just really in a funk. I had acquired this lap steel guitar that used to belong to Sol Hoopii. I finally had a chance to take it out of its case and started playing around with it, and it was like magic. I had tried playing these tunes on another steel guitar and it just didn’t sound right for what I was going for. So the rest of the project was driven by Sol Hoopii’s Rickenbacher guitar. That’s all I played on it.”
While Keepin’ It Real may have been inspired by Hoopii, Neer’s introduction to the lap steel guitar came from another Hawaiian legend, Gabby Pahinui, whom he first heard on Ry Cooder’s 1977 album, Chicken Skin Music. “When I heard him play ‘Yellow Roses’ and ‘Chloe’ on that Cooder album, those two tunes sent me into a tailspin,” he recalled. “I love slide guitar, I played slide guitar, though I had maybe like a slightly different way of playing it where I didn’t really want to sound like Duane Allman, as much as I loved him. But then when I heard Gabby playing chords like that on the lap steel, it was something I hadn’t heard before. And it just sounded like magic to me. I remember reading an article in Guitar Player magazine about Hawaiian steel guitar and so I bought a bunch of steel guitar records by Gabby and Speedy West and Buddy Emmons. Then I found a lap steel at a flea market, bought some picks, some bars and got started.”
Neer’s obsession with the lap steel, which led to his acclaimed Steelonious, now continues with Keepin’ It Real. “My initial idea was to make a record like a Hawaiian trio because I had a 1940 Kay double bass, a ukulele and the lap steel. Basically, I just looked around my studio and said, ‘This is what I have. Let me just focus on those.’” He began recording in November of 2020 and completed the album by early May of 2021. “They’re obviously all songs written by other people,” Neer said of the collection of jazz standards on Keepin’ It Real. “But I think I came up with some fresh arrangements.”
The album opens on an energized note with McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” (opening track to his 1967 Blue Note classic, The Real McCoy). With Neer strumming frantically on the uke while holding down a deep tumbao groove on the bass and creating a percussive undercurrent, he doubles the familiar melody on lap steel with vibraphonist Beckham, who solos first. Neer follows with a fluid, envelope-pushing lap steel solo that elevates the proceedings. Next up, he delivers a faithful reading of Oliver Nelson’s hauntingly beautiful ballad “Stolen Moments” (from the 1961 Impulse! album, Blues and the Abstract Truth), featuring Anton Denner’s soaring flute solo and an expressive lap steel solo from the leader.
Ron Oswanski’s solo accordion intro sets an evocative tone for a patient, deliberate reading of Horace Silver’s gorgeous “Peace” (from his 1959 Blue Note album, Blowin’ the Blues Away). Neer turns in a particularly expressive lap steel solo on this darkly-hued ballad. Vibraphonist Beckham returns for an upbeat take on Silver’s Latin-tinged “Nica’s Dream” (from his 1960 Blue Note album, Horace-Scope). Both Beckham and Neer turn in swinging solos on this number named for jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswalter.
Guitarist Will Bernard and Neer double on the tricky head to Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt” (from his 1966 Blue Note album, Speak No Evil). The clave feel is apparent on this Latinized reading of the Shorter classic. Bernard brings a particular bluesy bite to his solo here while Neer takes a more misterioso approach on his lap steel solo.
Perhaps the most delicate and ethereal arrangement on the collection is Neer’s interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “African Flower” (from 1962’s Blue Note classic Money Jungle, a remarkable meeting of the minds between Duke, Charles Mingus and Max Roach). “I love that song,” said Neer. “I love listening to Ellington play it because everything he plays is like a surprise. He’s really underrated in that regard. You listen to him play that song and every time he plays it, there’s something that he does that just startles you.”
Neer’s lap steel blends beautifully with Matt King’s melodica on Clare Fischer’s buoyant Brazilian flavored clave-fueled number “Pensativa” (a tune introduced by Bud Shank and Fischer on 1962’s Bossa Nova Jazz Samba and more famously appearing on the 1964 Jazz Messengers album, Free For All). Both Neer and King turn in superb solos here.
The collection closes with Wes Montgomery’s swinging waltz “West Coast Blues” (from 1960’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery). With Neer comping on the uke and holding down the steady bass groove, guitarist Chris Crocco harmonizes the familiar line with Neer’s lap steel. Crocco’s fleet-fingered solo is especially exhilarating.
As he did on his auspicious debut, Steelonious, Neer continues to wave the flag for lap steel guitar on his latest 6-string manifesto, Keepin’ It Real.