Pianist and composer Roger Kellaway exists in that critical interface between little-known but respected session musician and known but unjustly little-recognized master. His recent recordings for IPOHeroes (2007) and I Was There: Roger Kellaway Plays from the Bobby Darin Songbook (2005)were very well received and revealed a professional, journeyman persistence. Kellaway is a national treasure who is omniscient in the field of jazz. Though not one to perform in public, Kellaway did play several nights at New York City's Jazz Standard which resulted in Roger Kellaway Live at the Jazz Standard.
Kellaway came to this recording with an agenda: the formation of a drummer-less band approximating Nat King Cole's piano, bass, guitar trios of the 1960s. Kellaway accomplishes this with guitarist Russell Malone and bassist Jay Leonhart, both veterans of the New York City jazz scene. Add vibraphonist Stefon Harris to the mix and the core trio becomes a facile swinging quartet. Cellist Borislav Strulev also shows up with a spotlight on the sole Kellaway composition of the set, the elegiac "All My Life." The overall sound is a sepia-toned 1950s and '60s period piece, right down to almost humid analogue sonics. Kellaway's repertoire reflects his aspirations for his band: heavy on Ellington and small combo bop.
The opening disc clocks no less than three Ellington compositions; sprite takes on "Cottontail" and "C Jam Blues," and a churchy "I'm Beginning to See The Light." Kellaway and Harris weave their respective melodies around one another, one starting a phrase with the other finishing. This is most provocative when applied to the song heads, particularly on Paul Desmond's "Take Five." With this jazz standard, there are certain expectations before hearing the arranged spin Kellaway has in store for it. Kellaway and Harris trade sections of the famous opening, leaving the piece slightly off-kilter, but in a pleasant, inventive way.
Kellaway retires his ballad jones with "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "The Nearness of You." Of bebop note is the searing "Doxy" that closes the first disc. The second disc opens with sheer genius. Kellaway arranges the 1930s Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers' "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." All of the band members have a healthy workout on this piece, Kellaway steering through country and western, roadhouse, and parlor music territories as Malone is particularly effective in his solo and accompanying guitar. The disc highlight is a lengthy treatment of Miles Davis' "Freddie Freeloader." Kellaway effectively draws a century of jazz piano through the modal prism of this abstract blues piece, offering the most compelling interpretation in recent memory. Much of the same can be said for the craggy Monk standard, "52nd Street Theme," which is presented in all of its bop glory.
Any Roger Kellaway release deserves a certain respect, but Roger Kellaway Live at the Jazz Standard is a cut above his best. It has a vintage sound with vintage music.
Personnel: Roger Kellaway: piano; Russell Malone: guitar; Stefon Harris: vibes; Jay Leonhart: bass; Borislav Strulev: cello.