Insistently earthy and mischievously atmospheric, keyboardist Erik Deutsch's music satisfies funk's primal imperative while offering all the pleasures of ear-tickling lyricism. Equal parts stargazer and spelunker, he's a jazz-steeped improviser who has found his voice in the borderlands between instrumental pop and groovecentric psychedelia.
After a three-year stint with guitar wizard Charlie Hunter and numerous West Coast appearances with various ensembles, the Brooklyn-based Deutsch is no stranger to the Bay Area music scene. But next week's spate of gigs marks his California debut with his muscular working band Demonio Teclado, featuring trumpeter-vocalist Jon Grey, bassist Jeff Hill and drummer Tony Mason.
"These are my guys," says Deutsch, 34. "They've played on my last couple of records and we've played a lot of gigs in the last two years. Not only my music. Last month Jon, Jeff and I played with Jim Campilongo at Yoshi's San Francisco, and we've recorded another five or 10 albums with other people, too."
Celebrating the release of Deutsch's third CD "Demonio Teclado" (Keyboard Demon), his quartet performs Wednesday at Café Du Nord as part of an interlaced triple bill with bassist Todd Sickafoose's Tiny Resistors, and Mad Flux, featuring guitarists Adam Levy and João Erbetta. Deutsch and his quartet also play on their own bill at Santa Cruz's Kuumbwa next Thursday, and Berkeley's Jazzschool on Jan. 18.
"My strength was never improvising on my own music," Deutsch says. "I always like to have other people solo on my tunes, but with 'Demonio' I set myself up to blow, especially live.
"I can thank Charlie for that," Deutsch continues, referring to Berkeley-raised guitarist Charlie Hunter. "I spent most of my 20s learning how to play lyrically. Charlie showed me how to construct a solo rhythmically, that you don't have to be precious and try to tell the story of creation every time."
Since his parents settled in Half Moon Bay in the late 1990s, Deutsch has become a familiar face around Northern California. Regular family visits allowed him to forge ties with top-shelf Bay Area players like drummer Scott Amendola and bassist John Shifflett. He's also worked extensively with Danville-raised bassist Todd Sickafoose, who moved back to the East Bay last year after about a decade in Brooklyn.
Sharing a love of lapidary textures and buzzy cadences, Deutsch and Sickafoose draw on many of the same influences (though the bassist tends toward shimmering, elastic anthems where Deutsch builds on gritty, lowdown grooves).
They've collaborated extensively, and at Wednesday's Du Nord gig, Deutsch will also be playing piano and keyboards with Sickafoose's Tiny Resistors, a sextet featuring violinist Matthew Szemela, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, drummer Jordan Glenn, and Los Angeles guitarist Adam Levy (a former Bay Area resident who's recorded with singers Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman and Ani DiFranco, among many others).
For Sickafoose, what sets Deutsch apart from so many peers is his formidable range as an improviser coupled with forthright tunefulness and sophisticated funk.
"It seems really rare to have someone who's such a monstrous piano player, who's really gotten into how to make a piano sing, but then he's also really proficient in all the keyboard sounds," Sickafoose says. "He's spent years delving into that, and you can tell he's really in control of the all the sounds."
Deutsch came of age musically in Boulder while studying music at the University of Colorado, where he became an informal apprentice of Art Lande, the pianist, composer and educator whose crystalline sound and idiosyncratic improvisational approach found an early home on the German label ECM. Deutsch still performs occasionally in the piano trio Triangle with Lande on drums.
"Art played every Wednesday night with a different band or concept in the basement of a dive bar in Boulder throughout the '90s, and that's what I did every week," Deutsch says. "It was an amazing thing, and that was my schooling in creativity."
After years as a key member of the thriving Boulder scene, Deutsch made the move to New York City in 2005 and quickly found a new circle of collaborators. He documented the convergence of his longtime and newfound friends on his 2007 debut album "Fingerprint" featuring Sickafoose, Denver trumpeter Ron Miles, violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummer Allison Miller.
His new music reflects his continuing evolution as a bandleader committed to rhythmic essentials.
"I'm still searching," he says. "I haven't arrived there yet as a leader. After meeting Tony Mason in Charlie Hunter's band, I wanted to have a funkier feel than I had in the past.
"I'm trying to pay tribute to classic soul/jazz music, and find my compositional self within that."
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Café Du Nord,
2170 Market St.,
Tickets: $10-$12, 415-861-5016, www.cafedunord.com
Also: 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, $15-$18, 831-427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org; and 8 p.m. Jan. 18, Jazzschool, 2087 Addison St., Berkeley, $15, 510-845-5373,