Monday, August 29, 2016

Géza Keller: The Precocious Troubador

Géza Keller picked up the guitar at 10, started composing his own songs at 16, and has since written more 50, styled after his primary influences: Steely Dan, Jackson Brown and Miles Davis.  

As the founder of half a dozen bands over the years, including breakingthecode, Géza has had a long love affair with writing and performing music. He also has always tried to bring a sense of community to groups of friends who share his love for the played note. 

Today, Géza plays lead guitar and sings lead vocals with breakingthecode, a four-person acoustic group he originally founded in 1997, which blends vocal harmonies with notes of jazz, blues, folk and rock. The current group performs a wide eclectic variety of singer-songwriter tunes, including Géza Keller originals, modern-day covers and catchy jazz tributes dating as far back as the 1920s.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Géza's colorful family history has influenced both his musical style and the political and cultural content of his songs. Géza was three years old when he and his Canadian-born mother Maggie Bujaki fled the Russian Communist regime and moved to WallaceburgCanadain February 1957. (Maggie’s parents were Hungarian, and took her back there during her school years, where she studied journalism and later became a Russian-Hungarian-English translator.) Géza’s father, Géza Ferenc (Francis or Frank) Keller, was a talented tailor, clothing designer and artist who was the nation’s junior diving champion. He once had aspirations to be an acrobat and to perform with his uncles in their world famous circus group, The Three Ajax. Instead, he ended up in prison and refugee camps for trying to flee from the Russians, finally making a water escape down the Danube to Austria in 1956. With the help of his great uncle, he reunited with his family six months later in Wallaceburg.

The Keller family relocated to Toronto for the next six years, where Maggie picked up various odd jobs available to political refugees until she landed a job at the Toronto Star. She later returned to newspapers as administrative assistant to the editor of The Sacramento Bee.

Géza F. played tunes by ear on the piano as he sang along with his favorite jazz records by the Mills Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald and the Four Freshmen. He also loved Big Band pianist Stan Kenton, trumpet player Maynard Ferguson, and marimba player Xavier Cugat. Growing up, little Géza often heard his father sing bossa nova songs with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, and Sergio Mendez & Brasil ’66.

When little Géza (Géza Laszlo) was eight, he saw the Disney movie “Almost Angels,” about the Vienna Boys Choir. Inspired by music at home, and recognizing now that young boys like him could perform, he immediately joined his elementary school choir as a soprano. He continued with choirs and ensembles until the family left for San Francisco two years later, in 1963. The family moved again six months later to Sacramento, when Géza was ten. Because he was academically gifted, he started school early and then was accelerated through several grades so he was two years younger than his classmates. 

Expanding his musical repertoire, Géza decided he wanted to be a drummer. His father rented him a snare drum for three months, which wasn't such a great idea in an apartment complex. But by then he’d also showed an interest in the saxophone, so he tried playing tenor sax in his school band. Unfortunately, the sax went the same way of the drums—still too loud for the neighbors—so Géza’s father bought him his first guitar, a Stella.

Shortly thereafter, Géza took guitar lessons from Danny Schmidt, the father of The Eagles’ bass player and singer Timothy B. Schmidt. However, he dropped the lessons a year later because they felt more like punishment than fun, and practiced on his own. He played guitar and sang in the school choir and ensemble in junior high, but when the family moved and he started a new high school, he was smaller and also two years younger than his peers, so he felt intimidated about playing publicly any longer. 

Graduating a year early, he was recruited to attend New Mexico Tech, a lower cost version of the California Institute of Technology, known as Caltech. Just sixteen when he left his close-knit family in Sacramento, Géza took off for the new desert frontier and the tiny rural town of Socorro with fervor, aiming to escape his provincial “white bread” life. There, he studied math, played soccer, and pursued the Yaqui way of knowledge.

It wasn’t until his junior year of college that he got hooked on guitar once again, honing his skills by listening to Steely Dan, the Grateful Dead, Traffic and singer-songwriters such as Jackson Brown and John Prine. He also practiced the guitar and sang like a fiend for at least six hours a day. He and some classmates formed a band called Creamy Goodness, which later changed its name to Island, after a book by Aldous Huxley about a Utopian place where everyone is happy. During that period, Géza wrote a number of complicated songs with challenging time signatures, inspired by jazz greats John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Stanley Turrentine, Ron Carter and the Don Ellis Orchestra.

As a math major studying logic, Géza studied the work of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician and philosopher, which led to other great philosophers such as Rene Descartes (“I think therefore I am”) and Maurice Nicoll, who talked about achieving true self consciousness by developing and harmoniously integrating one’s physical, intellectual and emotional centers.

“It is like a guitar with many strings. To pluck one all the time is not to reach a harmony,” Nicoll said.

Thus inspired, Géza strived to integrate harmonies into his musical compositions as well, hoping that listeners would also experience joy from them. That is still true today.

“I want them to feel the loooooove,” he says.

After graduation, Géza worked on the first airborne laser at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, rode many hilly miles on his bicycle through the Land of Enchantment, and formed The Jazz Sparks with some other Techies, who played covers and also some of Géza’s original songs. He eventually ended up at the Los Alamos national lab, working in the Laser Fusion Program and forming another band there.

Even then, the young lad became known for bringing musicians together to jam. He took it on himself to encourage burgeoning talent, a community-building skill for which he is still known at the college’s annual “49ers” reunion and the annual SPIE optics trade shows he attends every year. And he takes immeasurable joy in organizing the slide-rule contest.

At the root, many of Géza’s original songs are about change. Many are also about love—its many forms and repercussions—a universal theme to which he believes everyone can relate.

Realizing that many people didn’t have the attention span for his longer, complicated jam songs, he set out to write his first commercial song, titled, “Let Me In,” in 1985. The song was inspired by the struggle that many young people experience, trying to find their own identities, their purposes in life, their search for love and their attempts to overcome their limitations amid the general chaos of life.

Girl, we’re all trying to live in a dream, life is not all that it seems, there’s so much for you so believe.

“People seek love and yet are troubled by love,” he says. “It’s both the answer and the problem.”

Géza’s hope has always been that this song would expand his audience beyond the musicians and artists who like music just for music’s sake; he wants his songs to appeal to listeners who enjoy being more actively engaged in music, and even want to get up and dance to it.

Finally tired of the rural mountain life, Géza decided to go full tilt in the other direction, and moved to Manhattan to take a new job. In his off time, Géza wrote a slew of songs about a range of topics, but focusing primarily on the search for the meaning of real love. One of them is “Big City Lights,” which is about a sexual tryst, against the backdrop of Manhattan.

During his two years in New York (and before he had children), he wrote “Baby Song,” which was about how he thought it would be when he did have kids. Today, he has two sons, who are 26 and 17. His older son, Cole, has joined the family business, runs an open mic night at the Stag & Lion Pub in Carlsbad, where he plays guitar and performs his own original songs. His younger son, Landon, is an autistic videogame savant and a talented but reluctant painter, which has prompted Géza to ponder forming a 501c3 nonprofit organization to help foster the creative and personal development of autistic adults.

“Baby Song” was the first song that Géza and his partner, Caitlin Rother, sang publicly together, because it is one of her favorite Géza Keller originals, and they have since recorded it as a duet. Its bossa nova beat and heartfelt lyrics make it a feel-good finger-snapping crowd pleaser as well.

‘Cause you’ve got a way of making me feel
It’s something special, doesn’t seem real
Now I know how it feels to be in love.

Géza moved to San Diego in 1988, where he worked at two optics companies before starting several of his own. His first company was QSP Optical Technology Inc., of which he was vice president. For the past 14 years, he has been the president and co-owner of Infinite Optics in Santa Ana, a company that develops and manufactures thin film coatings for parts of telescopes, medical instruments, and defense systems. On the same site, he started Cibola Glass, a boutique glass tile company that dovetails with Infinite Optics, by using similar technologies to create beautiful home furnishings. For a time he also ran Optics Masters, a sister company in Poway, which he recently sold.

More recently, Géza has been moved to write songs about tragic events that have struck him in the heart, such as the death of his college roommate, Victor J. Saracini, the pilot of Flight 175, whose hijacked plane was flown by terrorists into second tower at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That monumental tragedy inspired Géza to write “That Day,” a song about how our world view changed in those moments that Victor and 2,995 other Americans were killed, and 6,000 others were injured, and also fostered an annual fundraiser and scholarship fund at New Mexico Tech.

And I don’t think I’ll ever see, this life the way it used to be
While all the things around me change, I know that I still feel the same
And I won’t let your memory, fade into the history
Of all the things that you and I believed

Géza wrote another airplane-related song titled, “The Storm,” only this time, he eerily wrote it the day before the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which took the lives of 226 people and sparked a massive search-recovery effort in the Indian Ocean in 2014.

The Storm blew up from the south, that’s the day that she got lost.
Looking back, someone says that’s really how it all takes place.

Géza has enjoyed playing live in many bands, also including a now-defunct electric group called FakeBook, which had several of the same members as breakingthecode. But he also tries to get into the recording studio whenever he can. 

He started his own label and launched his first studio, 2656 State Street in Carlsbad, then moved it to Poway as Studio 2656, with his old friend and BTC bandmate Joe Rosignolo. Recording with other talented studio musicians, including drummer Jack Nathan, guitar player Bob Harkelroad, and pedal steel player Kirk Eipper, further reignited Géza’s passion to get back to playing his own original music. Today, he regularly jams with Jack and others local musicians at venues throughout North County.  
Nights and weekends, Géza plays many other roles besides lead singer and guitarist, including miniature golfer, bowler, video arcade monitor and homework tutor for Landon. He and Caitlin also enjoy long-distance swimming in the ocean, and go on quarterly creative personal development trips to the wine country in Sonoma and Napa, where they are working to develop their mad wine-tasting skills, to write and rehearse new songs. They are always on the lookout for good wineries or other venues where BTC can perform.

Story by Caitlin Rother, photo by Richard Malcolm. To support BTC, please "like" their Facebook page. To join their mailing list, please email Caitlin at