Roger Kellaway: The History Man

C. Michael Bailey By

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Roger Kellaway could not be called a best kept secret. He's been active for over 40 years, performing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Barbra Streisand, and yes, Bobby Darin, the subject of the first two discs reviewed here. Kellaway's sprawling experience is reflected by his black-hole talent. His command of the entire history of piano styles is staggering and it's exhilarating to hear it all at once—and on these three recordings, the listener is treated to this exact experience.

Roger Kellaway Trio
I Was There: Roger Kellaway Plays From The Bobby Darin Songbook
IPO Recordings

When considering Roger Kellaway, the only format that beats the traditional piano trio is solo piano. I Was There: Roger Kellaway Plays From The Bobby Darin Songbook, the first of two recordings dedicated to Darin's music, is a sharply conceived collection, and it coincides well with the biopic release about the singer, Beyond The Sea (Lions Gate, 2004), starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth.

Born Walden Robert Cossotto, Darin was a popular big band singer and teen pop idol of the late 1950s. One could reason that it was Darin who assumed the mantle of Francis Albert Sinatra when that singer moved his gig to Las Vegas. Darin's style broadened out from Sinatra's beloved American songbook into newer territory, including early rock and roll ("Splish-Splash ) and, oddly and fortuitously, pre-war German stage music ("Mack The Knife, whose melody was based on Kurt Weill's "Moritat Vom Mackie Messer from The Threepenny Opera).

Kellaway wastes no time in getting to his point by opening I Was There with perhaps Darin's finest ballad, "Beyond the Sea. Kellaway bounces through the introduction before settling into a beautiful melody-driven treatment that captures Darin's, Kellaway's, and the composition's personalities perfectly. "Charade is introduced with a rumbling discord before smoothing out to a harmony-melody axis that would have sounded well in place in the more ominous sections of The Sound Of Music. Kellaway solos broadly, and I mean all over the sonic, rhythmic, and chronologic map. Here his pianism approaches (and often achieves) the flourishes of a Tatum or a Peterson.

"My Buddy shows a blues bent and approaches "One More For The Road. Kellaway plays it quiet and plaintively, never entering the roadhouse, only the bar at Tavern on the Green at closing time. "When I Look Into Your Eyes proves to be the spooky ballad it is, with Kellaway providing just enough dissonance to keep the listener off center. "The Shadow Of Your Smile does the exact opposite. "All By Myself, "My Funny Valentine and "When Your Lover Has Gone are all performed with Kellaway's obvious love and respect for his subject. Solo piano outings simply do not get any better than this.

Roger Kellaway Trio
Remembering Bobby Darin
IPO Recordings

Remembering Bobby Darin is the piano trio companion disc to I Was There: Roger Kellaway Plays From The Bobby Darin Songbook. Add Kellaway's trio to the mix and the dimension of the cabaret is added. Guitarist Bruce Forman perfectly places that Eddie Lang touch on every song. If anything, the superb song list is transported in style to two decades earlier. Kellaway plays his best Ralph Sutton on "Remember. Forman's chord solo is nostalgic in the best sense of the word.

Hoagy Carmichael's "Up A Lazy River is the most ensemble-oriented piece on the recording, with bassist Dan Lutz forcing the rhythm and time at gunpoint. Kellaway displays his outstanding two-fisted piano technique. "Meditation is presented as a Caribbean dream, with Forman's staccato chording providing just the breeze necessary to provide that island flair. "Splish-Splash needs to be heard twice before the listener will fully appreciate it. All three players are necessary and basically fully separated, showing off all of their individual talents. Only during Kellaway's rollicking solo does the rhythm section lay down a wicked 4/4.

On the ballad "Oh, Look At Me Now, Lutz's introductory arco bass transforms this pop tune to chamber music (with just a touch of the blues). Perhaps the finest song on the collection, "Oh, Look At Me Now allows all parties to paint on a broad canvas. But that is only the first half of the song. Then it's back to the 1930s with a toe-tapping 2/4 that only needs Stephane Grappelli to be at the Hot Club. Kellaway reprises "Beyond The Sea, allowing Forman and Luzt to carry the harmony and melody respectively, while Kellaway himself waits for the second chorus to come out and play.

The disc ends as it only could, with "Mack The Knife. Kellaway opens the piece from an old acetate transfer before transforming it into a post-bebop cornucopia, where the pianist decides to explore the history of jazz and popular music in four minutes.

Roger Kellaway Trio
IPO Recordings

Heroes reminds me of Ray Bryant's Ray's Tribute To His Piano Friends released in 1997. Bryant employed the traditional jazz piano trio to explore the music of Bryant's inspirations, colleagues and friends. Here Kellaway tips his hat to Benny Golson, Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt and Oscar Peterson, among others. Golson's "Killer Joe kicks off the disc and is grounded primarily by Kellaway's perfect hard bop/soul sense. Bruce Forman guides "Cotton Tail among the walking notes of bassist Dan Lutz, who, just behind the beat, provides the trio's horsepower.

Kellaway ,and by proxy, Forman and Lutz, break out their blues creds on "Night Train, carefully retaining the swinging spirit of the original while scaling it down to trio size. In spite of that scale down, a Gene Harris-type orchestral sound is coaxed from the trio by the pianist. "I'm Smiling Again is perfect Tin Pan Alley with Kellaway integrating a bit of Willie "The Lion Smith stride piano into the mix while Forman gives his level best Eddie Condon. The trio does the same superbly with Benny Moten's "Moten Swing.

Kellaway ends his tribute with his original, "Hymn To Freedom, full of Church and grace. On this piece the pianist and his group pull out all of the stops and illustrate the full range of Kellaway's favored piano-guitar-bass format. While Kellaway's Bobby Darin offerings are heads and shoulders above the vast majority of jazz piano discs, Heroes is his current piece de resistance. Roger Kellaway is a talent reaching zenith, hopefully a very long one.

Tracks and Personnel

I Was There: Roger Kellaway Plays From The Bobby Darin Songbook

Tracks: Tracks: Beyond The Sea; Charade; My Buddy; Just In Time; When I Look In Your Eyes; The Shadow Of Your Smile; I Was There; I'm Beginning To See The Light; A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square; When Your Lover Has Gone; That's All; My Funny Valentine; All By Myself; Something In Your Smile.

Personnel: Roger Kellaway: piano.

Remembering Bobby Darin

Tracks: Remember; Up A Lazy River; Meditation; More; Splish Splash; Oh! Look At Me Now; Once Upon A Time; I'm Beginning To See The Light; Beyond The Sea; Mack The Knife.

Personnel: Roger Kellaway: piano; Bruce Forman: guitar; Dan Lutz: bass.


Tracks: Killer Joe; Cotton Tail; I Was Doing All Right; Nuages; Night Train; I'm Smiling Again; Midnight Sun; Moten Swing; 52nd Street Theme; Hymn To Freedom.

Personnel: Roger Kellaway: piano; Bruce Forman: guitar; Dan Lutz: bass.

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