Keyboardist Dave McKenna knows. Or maybe he doesn’t.
Take his recent recording “Live From Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume Two.” At one point, McKenna opens one of his trademark theme medleys with “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” then moves easily into “I Wish I Knew.” Before long, he segues to “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” and then “I Don’t Know Why.” Just when it seems he could know no more, he strides into “You’ll Never Know,” then adds “I Never Knew” for good measure.
“I started doing that kind of thing during solo gigs,” McKenna, 61, explained earlier this week in a phone interview from his home on Cape Cod, Mass., when reminded of how he put together “Just Friends,” “Can’t We Be Friends” and “Beautiful Friendship” during a 1990 concert in Santa Monica.
“They kill a lot of time,” he joked.
McKenna, who describes himself as just an old-fashioned guy at heart, appears in a solo concert tonight at the Hyatt Newporter in Newport Beach.
“When I first started playing, I could never think of what to play. Sometimes I would just stop and scratch my head. So I started this word-association thing. It made me go from one tune to another and sooner or later, I’d put in enough time and the set would be over. It really is a time killer. And the older people like it, putting the titles together, even if some of the younger ones don’t know all of them.”
McKenna came up through the bands of Woody Herman and Charlie Ventura in the early ‘50s to play with Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Bobby Hackett. Though he records frequently as a sideman, he is best known today as a soloist and is often described as one of the last of the saloon players because of his love for standards. At one point in his career, McKenna claimed he was more a “song man than a jazzman.”
“That’s definitely true, especially nowadays,” he said. “It’s getting more and more that way. . . . I’m more of a mainstream player anyway. I don’t get too far from the melody, maybe just a few variations here and there. If I play a beautiful ballad, I try to let the song speak for itself.”
Though McKenna says modestly that there are “a lot of guys who know more tunes than I do,” his solo performances, as demonstrated by his word-association medleys, show his knowledge runs pretty deep. He’s been known to go on for entire sets stringing together lullabies, or tunes with the word “spring” in the title. Born in Rhode Island in 1930, McKenna says he had some formal training but learned jazz from recordings and the radio.
“I just listened to songs,” he explained. “For a short while, I got into cowboy songs, then I heard Harry James and Benny Goodman on the radio and I was really off.”
Nat King Cole, though best known as a singer, was the young McKenna’s favorite piano player.
“He was very expressive,” McKenna says. “He had a firm but great touch, and could almost bend notes at the piano. A lot of guys smear notes, but he could really bend them. And he swung beautifully.”
But McKenna admits to listening more to horn players than piano players, citing musicians such as clarinetist Artie Shaw, saxophonist Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Buck Clayton. “Then I went back to Louis (Armstrong). . . . I think Louis is my favorite trumpet player. Louie’s my favorite everything. I love the way he sang and the way he played.”
Though he admires the “sensitivity” of Bill Evans and the “stamina” of McCoy Tyner, McKenna doesn’t much care for the current crop of keyboardists.
“I respect them because they have so much technique,” he says. “They can all bury me. But I can’t say I like what they’re doing all the time, that modern style. All those post-McCoy Tyner players, I don’t know. They’re good, but just not my cup of tea.”
“Let’s face it. I’m an old-fashioned player, a conservative, mainstream player. I like the old-fashioned things better, really.”
Dave McKenna appears tonight at 7:30 at the Hyatt Newporter, 1107 Jamboree Road, Newport Beach. Admission: $7. The second set of the concert will be broadcast live on KLON-FM (88.1) at 9 p.m. Information: (714) 729-1234.