The first one is always free. For Kait Dunton it was a friend’s beat-up Fender Rhodes, gathering dust in her garage. After much hesitation the pianist sat down at the electric keyboard, plugged in a couple of effects pedals for a planned afternoon of tinkering, and became hooked.
“That feels like a lifetime ago,” Dunton says now, a mere five years later. “But now I have a recording studio in my house full of vintage keyboards. I feel like I can confidently call myself a keyboardist.”
Dunton celebrates that newfound identity on her spirited new release, Keyboards, due out July 17, 2023. As the straight-to-the-point title suggests, the album celebrates the palette of colors and moods that Dunton can conjure from her array of classic axes, basking in grooves and soulful vibes that are as stunningly vintage as the keyboards themselves.
Longtime fans will be well prepared for Dunton’s full embrace of the “keyboardist” title. She’s regularly showcased her arsenal (along with their acoustic cousin) on her popular Instagram account, garnering more than 130,000 devoted followers in the process. Even before blowing up on the socials, IRL she founded her group trioKAIT on the idea of reimagining electronica-influenced jazz in an acoustic piano trio format, colliding those worlds when she brought Rhodes and Wurlitzer into the mix on the band’s third album, trioKAIT 2. On Keyboards she adds Hammond organ, Mellotron, Clavinet and a handful of synthesizers.
With Keyboards Dunton introduces a new trio, with returning trioKAIT drummer Jake Reed along with bassist Sean Hurley. All three are in-demand session musicians on the L.A. scene, while Reed and Hurley work together in a variety of contexts – often with guitarist Andrew Synowiec, who Dunton regularly calls to expand the new group into a quartet. “Sean and Jake have an incredible lock-up,” Dunton says. “It’s incredibly easy to play with them, and so much fun.”
While her transition from piano purist to keyboard enthusiast was a gradual one, musically Keyboards brings Dunton full circle, reconnecting with some of her earliest influences from jazz fusion, 80s pop and yacht rock. The references that swirl together throughout the album range from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters to Richard Tee’s Stuff, George Benson to Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder to Weather Report, Boz Scaggs to Earth, Wind & Fire, Hall and Oates to Michael McDonald. These foundational influences are channeled through an early-2000s groove-jazz filter that reflects Dunton’s coming-of-age on a diet of Soulive and early Bad Plus.
Keyboards provides the perfect blend of feel-good grooves and sonic sophistication, reflecting the well-honed virtuosity of Dunton and her triomates without ever indulging in the cerebral. Dunton’s songs are as compelling as they are infectious, locking into taut, elastic grooves graced with elegant, soulful melodies and rich, entrancing harmonies.
“At this stage of my life, I’m really coming to realize what a joy it is to just play in a pocket – for the musicians and for the audience,” Dunton explains. “There’s a tendency in jazz to overcomplicate things or change too much instead of just hanging out in a groove. Weirdly, one of the hardest things to do is to do less.”
Much of that simplicity, as well as the raw material for most of the tunes on the album, are a direct result of Dunton’s viral success. Posting videos several times a week, she would challenge herself to devise a snippet of a song, record and edit, all roughly within an hour. The discipline that schedule instilled made overthinking impossible. Dunton did flesh out those quick fragments into full-fledged songs for Keyboards, but insisted on maintaining their core simplicity and directness.
“I think that really changed my thinking compositionally,” she says. “I’ve learned that being inspired by a sound and coming up with a groove would be enough. I’ve also gotten better at understanding what the band will bring to the sound later, so I don’t have to overcomplicate it when I’m sitting there writing.”
The results span the sunny, Steely Dan-inflected pop sophistication of opener “Seventy-Three” (named after Dunton’s Stage 73 Rhodes) and the dazzling organ soul of “Connie’s in Charge” (referencing the nickname of her Hammond C3); the sanctified gospel feel of “The Lighthouse” and the yacht rock strut of “Mr. Old School;” the swaggering blues of “Mr. Jay’s Blues’ (dedicated to the keyboardist’s brother) and the Michael McDonald/Doobie Bros. dramatics of “Headspace.”
Dunton’s stellar songwriting prompted DownBeat magazine to praise her ability to bring “a Technicolor sensibility to everything she touches.” She was an early member of Snarky Puppy during their formative years in Texas, appearing on their sophomore record The World is Getting Smaller. She records often for film, television and other artists; her playing appears extensively on the Mister Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, as well as on ABC’s The Little Mermaid Live! Also an active educator, she has taught at the University of North Texas, USC’s Thornton School of Music, Musician’s Institute, Chaffey College, and most recently at Los Angeles College of Music (LACM) in Pasadena, where she developed their new Piano Performance program and served as the inaugural chair.