In case there is any doubt, this is an authentic Roger Kellaway recording, which is to say it is a musical event. I Was There
was produced to coincide with the recent Bobby Darin film biography Beyond the Sea
, a project in which Kellaway served as vocal coach for its star, Kevin Spacey. Rather than somehow trying to imitate him, Kellaway creatively re-examines tunes from Darin's repertoire. Bypassing most of the singer's hits, Kellaway chooses music from Darin's late 1960s book when he was evolving from teen-age pop star to supper club swinger, with Kellaway as his musical director.
Like most musicians, Kellaway relaxes more lately than he used to. That tendency is reversed in this CD. There are still moments of relative calm, such as his thoughtful improvisation on "All By Myself," but he breaks up the mood by launching into a shout chorus. His maniacal free play on "I'm Beginning to See the Light" revisits the music revolution of the 1960s. Kellaway did not play in free bands to my knowledge, but he was there on the scene, and he had to be affected. The "Mop Mop" licks and extended false ending on the piece are examples of his humor.
With the passing of Jaki Byard, Kellaway remains as possibly the only major modern pianist who plays stride. In some of his previous records, he has moved into and out of a stride feel, but here he completely integrates it. "The Shadow of Your Smile," a swirling tango, recalls the harmonic feel from Kellaway's celebrated Cello Quartet compositions. There are no blues, but the slow Cuban rhythm treatment on "When Your Lover Has Gone" has a bluesy undercurrent, "Just in Time" has some boogie woogie, and "My Buddy" has palpable tinges of gospel and of the blues. Incidentally, Kellaway dedicates "My Buddy" to Darin, which may give another clue to his approach. At times he seems to recall his own musical world of the era, a world in which Darin played a significant role. In that sense the music may be more (auto) biographical for Kellaway than for Darin.
Kellaway composes only one number, "I Was There," but his melodic gift is present on every tune as spontaneous composer. He keeps the original songs in mind and finds ways to build and expand on them, a more difficult and rewarding practice than just blowing on changes. Also, he finds it easier to play with time, and he ends up with a more natural (non-technical) feel. As a premier accompanist, Kellaway knows something about singing, and he surrounds his vocal chorus on "Something in Your Smile" with soulful, upper register vocalese.