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Three keyboards, one concert

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Paul Cantrell, Carei Thomas and Todd Harper make up the trio Keys Please! (MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)
One night a year, three Twin Cities musicians come together to perform before a live audience. The three men come from different generations and musical backgrounds, but they have two things in common; they all play keyboard instruments, and they all resist attempts to pigeonhole their music.

St. Paul, Minn. — On a recent Monday night, Paul Cantrell, Carei Thomas and Todd Harper meet in Cantrell's Minneapolis apartment to rehearse. While Cantrell is in his 20s, Harper is in his 40s and Thomas is in his 60s. Five years ago they joined forces to create Keys Please!, an annual concert that showcases pieces they've composed individually and work on which they've collaborated.

Cantrell was trained in classical music. Harper and Thomas both hail from a more jazz and avant-garde background. Paul Cantrell says together they think broadly about music, rather than automatically forcing each piece into its own category.

"Even on the radio, we have a classical station and a jazz station and a rock station. And when you put it all together you start hearing -- it's all music, it all communicates, these worlds all overlap," says Cantrell. "It's not about the social group that the music makes you a part of, or what kind of commercials run on the station that plays it. It's about what the music does to you in your gut."

Paul Cantrell says whenever people visit his small Minneapolis apartment for the first time, they always get a look of astonishment on their face and ask, "How did you get that piano in here?" The seven-foot grand piano dominates his modest living room.

They set up Thomas' synthesizer next to the grand. Since there's no room for a third piano, Todd Harper and Paul Cantrell share a keyboard, sometimes crossing over each other's hands.

Their enthusiasm for the music is immediately obvious and infectious. Carei Thomas says playing with the other two allows him to expand his own musical vocabulary.

"I have all these images of things that are personal to me. And I guess it's because I'm an only child, so everything is mine -- everything I see is MINE MINE MINE!" shouts Thomas. "I wanted to do something to bring those things to life. And in so doing I need these different people, who have varying experiences differing from mine, to make it happen."

The members of Keys Please say they bring their own personal musical backgrounds to their rehearsals, and they learn from each other. They refer to composers from all across the spectrum -- Chopin and Jimi Hendrix, Brahms and Bill Evans, Tchaikovsky and Thelonious Monk.

Their compositions are products of this barrier-breaking collaboration. They say they're all proud to consider themselves amateurs, in the original sense of the word, meaning they all love the music.

"I know so many people who have had piano lessons and have painful memories," says Harper. "A lot of people went professional and have these painful memories!" chimes in Cantrell, to which Thomas adds, "they were being serious, like serious music -- notice we haven't said anything about serious music tonight -- thank goodness!"

Each year the three pianists bring in another musician -- one who doesn't play the piano -- to add some spice. This year they've invited cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan. It's her first time playing with the group.

"This was a new deal to play with three keyboard players," says Ferrier-Ultan. "It seems like an interesting experiment and I know they're all great musicians, so I'm ready and willing."

With Ferrier-Ultan's arrival, the apartment living room is now close to maximum capacity -- with a grand piano, a Roland synthesizer, a cello, four musicians and a radio reporter. They get to work on one of Carei Thomas' pieces, called Photochromokinesis IV: or One Final Answer.

Thomas plays with notes that evoke certain elements of light and color. Thomas shouts with excitement when they join together in a crescendo at exactly the right moment.

Paul Cantrell says performing with Harper and Thomas gives him an opportunity to let his works breathe and find new life. He says when he plays Chopin at a Keys Please concert, it sounds different played between two modern or jazz compositions from the way it does in a straight classical concert.

Cantrell says he loves performing classical music, but he hates the world that comes with it. He says it's full of incredibly able people, clawing their way over each other to get to the top.

"They're obsessed with technique and things that can be easily seen and measured, and obsessed with ways for this person to outshine that person," says Cantrell. "And that has so little to do with music for me. I just want to play music that I love, in a way that I love, that's very personal and engaging and entirely my own."

The members of Keys Please perform Saturday night on the Macalester College campus in St. Paul. Whatever profits they make from the evening are usually enough to buy a nice dinner, and some more sheet music. Then they'll go back to their separate lives.

While Thomas plays in other bands around town, he says he's working on retiring. Cantrell is a software programmer by day, but occasionally hosts salon-style piano performances out of his apartment. Harper is a school teacher. He probably wont perform in public again until Keys Please! returns next year.