Keyed Up

Jay Gonzalez

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Jay Gonzalez

Jay Gonzalez had some mighty big shoes to step into when he joined the Drive-By Truckers in 2008. His predecessor was Muscle Shoals royalty Spooner Oldham, an ivory tickler with one of the finest CVs in the biz, and while the pairing of Oldham and DBT had been relatively satisfying it wasn’t exactly a perfect fit (to these ears). From the first time Dirty Impound caught Gonzalez with the band at two-night barn-burner at The Fillmore in SF, we were certain that the Truckers had found the right man for the job. Gonzalez quickly found his place amidst the three guitar frontline, texturing the music and even muscling in for a share of the solo space from time to time – no inch is given in the Drive-By Truckers – a player in the line with Ian McLagan and Johnnie Johnson, i.e. keyboardists able to NOT be swallowed whole by rock’s general genuflecting to six-stringers.

However, nothing in his Truckers work prepares one for his freakin’ delightful solo debut, Mess of Happiness (DI review), where Gonzalez reveals his unadulterated pop side in a sound redolent of solid gold 70s AM radio, early solo Paul McCartney and Todd Rundgren, and even early Ben Folds Five. There’s great sweetness and a winning lightness of touch to Gonzalez’s tunes, and each cut is arranged and produced with obvious care – as apparent a labor of love as we’ve ever encountered. It’s an album to confound any preconceptions around this gifted young musician and a pointer to swell sounds to come. And the videos from Mess [shared at end of this article] show off an endearingly playful side – we’re reminded of The Monkees capering – that’s probably not safe to flash around the likes of Mike Cooley. Everything about Gonzalez’s solo work speaks to an artist who loves what he’s doing and does it so well one is quickly smitten with what he’s dishing out.

Here’s what Jay had to say to the Impound’s keyboardist inquiry.

Favorite keyboard? Why?
That’s a tough one. Ideally, it’d be a three way tie between an acoustic piano, a Hammond and a Wurlitzer electric piano. But though the piano is the most versatile on its own, I have to go with the Wurlitzer for sheer sound and atmosphere, especially in a rock band setting. It sits well in a mix with loud electrics, or it can be a substitute for an electric (especially cranked through an amp). There’s something about that hollow, warm sound that gets me every time, especially with a touch of vibrato on it.
Tastiest keyboardist – i.e. not just soloing but also overall playing – currently working?
Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch). Always has the perfect part for a tune, no extraneous notes clogging up the arrangement.
A keyboard solo I never get tired of listening to is…
Garth Hudson’s organ solo in “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” from Bob Dylan’s 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert with The Band. It’s the third solo in a song full of ripping solos, and it’s this short (15 seconds, to be exact) yet total melodic statement that was probably totally improvised yet sounds worked out.
Preferred brand of keys? Why?
The Truckers have a mint late 50s Hammond B3 that’s a dream to play. Also, I don’t have one yet, but I’ve used the Hammond Leslie 3300, which sounds great and is small and rugged.

If I don’t have access to the real deal, and as far as versatility in a live situation, my Nord Electro covers the Wurly and B3 sounds amazingly and I use a Yamaha CP-33 for acoustic piano.

Thelonius Monk, Bernie Worrell or Nicky Hopkins– which one gives you the biggest keyboard boner? What makes them SO sweet?
I’d have to go with Nicky Hopkins as ( pardon me , Nicky’s estate) giving me the biggest keyboard boner. I’m a huge British invasion fan and he’s played on 90-percent of the records I love from that era, from the crazy piano he plays at the end of The Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” to The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” to Nilsson’s “Remember (Christmas)”. Love it all.
One lesser known keyboardist folks should check out is…
This Swedish organist named Merit Hemmingson. One of my favorite blogs, Aquarium Drunkard, posted a track by her from the early seventies that killed me. She’s called the “Queen of Swedish Hammond Folk Groove”, and she really is. The album is called Trollskog, and on it she combines low key, soulful B3 over folkie and classical sounding progressions. Sometimes she scats or sings in Swedish, though it’s hard for my ignorant ears to tell the difference. Great stuff.
What aspect of being a keyboardist always makes you happy?
Once I’ve worked on an arrangement of a song for a while, honing it down to that point when it all the voices settle in and work with each other on the keyboard, and also work with the other instruments being played. That’s the happiest part, for sure.