Thursday, June 30, 2011

Roger Kellaway and Finding New Wonders

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Alto saxophonist, Phil Woods calls him Jazz’s Boswell. Phil ought to know as he has been around long enough to have been involved in over half of the history of Jazz. 

Most of us know said Boswell as Bill Crow - bassist, author and all-round good guy.  And if Bill has a rule-to-live-by, one which he stresses over-and-over again, it’s that “Jazz is supposed to be fun.”

To my ears, no one better exemplifies this approach to Jazz than pianist Roger Kellaway. But please don’t misunderstand this to mean that Roger isn’t serious about his music or that he is in any way belittling Jazz.

Roger’s music is full of joy, happiness and unexpected adventure and, as such, is full of the fun of finding new wonders in Jazz. Listening to Roger play is like being let into the funhouse at the amusement park. For Roger, as for Bill Crow, Jazz is fun. That’s the point of the whole thing.

Roger, too, has his own Boswell. Gene Lees, the eminent Jazz writer and reviewer, has devoted an entire chapter to him in his Arranging the Score: Portraits of Great Arrangers [New York: Cassell, 200]. Appropriately, the chapter on Roger in Gene’s book is entitled “Soaring.”

In another of his compilations, Gene Lees tells the story of  how when pianist Alan Broadbent first encountered the music of Bill Evans as a young boy growing up in his native New Zealand, he burst into tears at the sheer beauty of it.

The first time I ever heard the music of Roger Kellaway as a young man, I burst out laughing. It was the laughter of delight based on the thrill and disbelief of what I’d just heard him play.

Whenever Roger soloed during this first hearing, it was the musical equivalent of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” - Walt Disney’s famous cartoon adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in The Willows.

Roger was all over the place: dense bop lines followed by stride piano licks; dissonance followed by melodically beautiful phrases; propulsive rumbling out of the lower register followed by cat-running-along-the-piano-keys tinkling in the high notes.

The Power of Positive Swinging [Mainstream 56054; Mainstream Legacy JK 57117] was the source of my initial Kellaway encounter. The album also introduced me to the Clark Terry & Bob Brookmeyer quintet which featured the trumpet-flugelhorn sound of the former blended with the valve trombone tone of the latter.

Brookmeyer had played with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in the late 1950s so I was not surprised to find bassist Bill Crow and drummer Dave Bailey from Geru’s quartet continuing with Bob in the new group that he had formed with Clark. Roger Kellaway joins in as the piano player on the album. It was a name I had never heard before, but one that I would never forget after hearing him perform on this LP.

The shock was immediate. It began on the opening tune. With a title like Dancing on the Grave, I should have guessed that something unusual might be going on.

In a band led by Terry and Brookmeyer, two of modern Jazz stalwarts, I’m listening to this ultra hip, slick and cool arrangement when quite suddenly, its piano player begins to interject licks made up of an admixture of stride, honky-tonk and boogie woogie styles!

I couldn’t believe my ears and found myself laughing at the sheer boldness of expression. It was almost the musical equivalent of the verbal idiom: “Wait a minute, you can’t do that” or “Did you hear what he just did?”

Did I get a prize because I had found this musical anachronism? Didn’t I just find the transistor radio in full display next to the driver on the buckboard wagon?

And if Roger was stylistically “all over the place” on the first tune, he didn’t let up on the second one – Battle Hymn of the Republic.

On The King by Count Basie he plays the most marvelous straight ahead solo with some phrases ending in train wrecks [clusters of notes that sound as though their crashing into one another] in the upper and lower register before closing out with licks from the Dixieland anthem - 12th Street Rag -  played in a ragtime style. Who was this guy?

Dissonance and rhythmic duets with himself on A Gal In Calico, the most sublime and swinging introduction on Brookmeyer’s original Green Stamps with a marvelously sustained tremolos in the left hand that becomes another delightful surprise during a piano solo that creates the feeling of riding on a cloud, followed by blurted tonal clusters and more unexpected diversions in his solo on Just an Old Manuscript: who was this guy?

In his liner notes to the album, Nat Hentoff quotes Bob Brookmeyer “… in a rare surge of adjectives,” as saying: “Roger is one of the most impressive, versatile talents I’ve heard in recent years. He can play any way; and no matter what way it is, it’s clear he’s not jiving.  He really is able to become part of a wide range of contexts.”

Well, that cleared that up; if Brookmeyer says Kellaway’s “not jivin’” then at least I could be reassured that this wasn’t a put on.

But with Roger resident on the east coast in a group that didn’t travel to the west coast [my home was in California], this was the extent of my exposure to Roger and his music.

That is until he showed up a couple of years later on the West Coast!

Roger’s move to California a few years later provided me with an opportunity to hear him in performance a few times.

Along the way I had also gathered-up his earlier trio recording for Prestige and some sides he did with guitarist Jim Hall.

Being already predisposed to Roger’s distinctive pianism, I next heard him on Spirit Feel [ST- 20122] an LP for Pacific Jazz he recorded in 1967 on which he is joined by Tom Scott [soprano & alto saxophones], Chuck Domanico [bass], Johnny Guerin [drums]. On some tracks Paul Beaver adds musique concrète effects through the use of a tape recorder.

Spending time with this album, it wasn’t long before I recognized that I was in the presence of a unique, musical mind; a mind that would have to encompass genius to know all the things that Roger demonstrated in his music and put them together as well as he did.

Many years later, I encountered the following writings by the late Gene Lees and the late Richard Sudhalter that confirmed my original assessment of Roger's genius.  It was comforting to have my opinion of Roger's exceptional and extraordinary talents be in such good company.

At the conclusion of these narratives, you will find a video tribute to Roger that was developed by the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and features as its soundtrack, Roger’s trio performance of Milt Jackson’s Spirit Feel replete with Paul Beaver’s tape recorded musique concrète effects.

© -Gene Lees/John Reeves, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“No one has had as much influence on my musical thinking as Roger Kellaway. When you write songs together, and Roger and I have been doing that for nearly twenty years, you get to know how your asso­ciate's mind works.

Once we were at a party at Henry Mancini's house. Roger was playing piano. Hank listened, shook his head in admira­tion of Kellaway's protean and unorthodox gifts, grinned, and said, "Roger, you're crazy."

No one I know can work in so many styles. He's recorded with everyone of note in jazz. One song Roger and I wrote had a simple country and western style melody. Yet Roger is an established and highly respected symphonic composer.

His jazz playing can be poignantly lyrical or rhythmically powerful, and when it's the latter there is a certain wildness in it, for Roger has a taste and talent for polytonality. His hands have an astonishing rhythmic independence.

Roger's icono­clastic Cello Quartet records, with an instrumentation of cello, bass, percussion, and piano, are now considered classics.

Roger is a product of the New England Conservatory in Boston. He worked pro­fessionally as a bass player as well as a pian­ist, and sang in the conservatory chorus, on one occasion under Charles Munch. His tastes run all the way from the earliest music to the most experimental.

For all the scope of his accomplishments, Roger sometimes has attacks of the uncertainty that plague all artists. Once we attended a rehearsal of the music he wrote for a George Balanchine ballet. He asked me to tape it for him. Later we sat in his car and listened, and at the end he said with a sort of sigh, ‘Well, I guess I do have some talent.’” [Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 1992, p. 144].

© -Richard M. Sudhalter, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“My first realization that Roger Kellaway might be something out of the ordinary came, I think, because Bud Farrington left his drums in my basement.

It was 1954, or thereabouts. We were high school students, crazy about listening to, and playing, jazz. Bill Haley and the Comets might be the frisson du jour on the pop charts, but as far as we were concerned they might have been active on Mars; our world consisted only of Lester Young, Bobby Hackett, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and other major jazz figures.

We'd had a weekend jam session, a regular event in our tight little circle in suburban Newton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston.  I played cornet in a self-consciously Bix Beiderbeckish manner; Dave Shrier brought his tenor sax, Don Dygert his trombone. Frank Nizzari, our 14-year-old prodigy, was on clarinet, and Fred Giordano was the pianist.

Roger played bass. We knew he also played piano; but his use of "modern" chords, and his busy, boppy ways of comping behind a soloist were a source of eternal contention: Roger played great, we thought, but he played too much. He filled the gaps, never left a soloist room to breathe; led you down what whatever harmonic path took his fancy in a given moment. Giordano, if technically half the pianist, was also about half as cluttered: his economical, swing-based approach generally kept everybody happy.

Bud - now Gen. Anthony j. Farrington, USAF, ret. - had left on a two-week family vacation directly after the session. Seeing the drums there, set up and begging to be played, was too good a chance to pass up. I phoned Kellaway.

"Hey, Rajah," I said, using a nickname whose full genesis would only be comprehensible to a fellow-New Englander, "want to have a crack at Bud's drums? All the cymbals are here, and he's even left sticks and brushes. Come on over." Within half an hour he did just that, and we set to work jointly unraveling the mysteries of jazz percussion.

I went at it with more enthusiasm than skill, gradually working up an energetic (if home-cooked) simulacrum of George Wettling's Chicago-style ensemble shots and devil-take-the-hindmost approach to four-bar solo breaks. (It was to serve me well some years hence when, through a chain of accidents not worth repeating here, I found myself playing drums on a rockabilly record date in pre-Olympic Atlanta, Georgia).

But never mind.  Roger tinkered with the set for about an hour, figuring out how every element worked; suddenly, it seemed, he was quite at home, playing along with - was it a Basie record?  He just had it down: elegant time, light touch, Jo Jones-like use of the cymbals. With or without technique, he could easily have fit into most anybody's rhythm section then and there.

Bud came home, reclaimed his trap set, and life went on.  I heard Roger play drums a couple of times after that, usually sitting in for a number during the last set of a dance gig. My abiding sense of it is that, had he so chosen, he could have made himself a quite respectable career as a drummer.

But that's the way it's always been with Kellaway.  He listens, watches, has a go and he's got it, now and forever. We often played tennis on Saturday afternoons: all it took was figuring out how the various strokes worked, and all at once he was Jimmy Connors, mopping up the court with me.  Sure, I won one now and then -- but even now, all these years later, I can't escape a hunch that he let me cop a few just to keep me believing I could do okay against him.

He'd picked up bass that way, too, when we were both at Levi F. Warren Junior High School. The bandmaster, one Vincent J. Marrotto, needed a bassist for the school orchestra.  Kellaway, in turn, needed little persuasion: he just took the damn thing home one day, figured it out, practiced himself into some technique, and -- Shazam!  He was a bas­sist. And it was as a bassist that he went on the road for the first time, as part of a band cornetist Jimmy McPartland was taking to Canada.

But it soon became obvious that piano was his major instrument, and had been all along.  It remained the locus of his creativity, and over the following decades he became one of the most versatile and inclusively creative pianists on the New York jazz scene.  I say "inclusive" because stylistic categories and distinctions seemed to mean little to him: he was equally at home, equally comfortable, playing for Don Ellis or Bobby Hackett, Tom Scott or comedian Jack E. Leonard; or accompanying Joni Mitchell or Bobby Darin. Whatever the setting, Kellaway was - as Ian Carr put it in The Penguin Rough Guide to Jazz – ‘a technically brilliant and often exceptionally adventurous pianist as well as an excellent composer.’

So it has remained. Mark well the word "adventurous": part of what makes Roger special is his willingness, even ardor, in accepting challenges. Whether composing a ballet for Balanchine or knocking off a raggy closing theme for the eternally popular TV sitcom All In The Family, he's forever in control, forever fresh -- and never, ever, predictable.

For awhile he and Dick Hyman appeared at Michael's Pub and various jazz events as a piano duo. That the two of them should have taken to one another comes as no surprise; they learn the same way, figuring out how something works, how a sound is produced, then just wrapping it into an ever-expanding arsenal of skills. Hyman has worked duo with many pianists, some of them - Derek Smith and Roland Hanna, for example -- his technical peers.  But it's no disservice to any of them to say that Roger may have been the only one who both matched him technically and teased (some would say bullied) more out of him, forcing him to burrow beneath his own glossy surface to find richer stuff.

An album of Kellaway-Ruby Braff duets not long ago resulted in some of that cornetist's most inspired playing -- again, playing up to and beyond his own rigorous standards. Kellaway's own "Cello Quartet" --cello and rhythm section -- produced composi­tion and playing of a rare beauty.

But you can read all that and more in any jazz reference book. What's significant here is that, one day in 1987, Roger accepted my invitation to play a solo piano recital at New York's Vineyard Theatre.  Fortunately the concert was recorded, and appears in its entirety on this CD. Beginning to end, he plays with wit, style, consummate skill. And -- perhaps most important - there's not a moment when he loses the quality that lies squarely at the core of his work: a deeply felt sense of melody.

‘I think there'll always be people around who gravitate toward a melodic ability,’ he said in a between-sets conversation. ‘There will certainly be all the others - those people who do the flash-and-dazzle and tap-dance, and can play a skillion notes, and maybe impress you on the surface.’

‘But, looking at my life and getting older, [I'm] realizing how important it is to play a melody and a ballad, until you finally reach a point of understanding where you say, “Oh, yeah -- that's what music is about.”’

A visit to Israel some years ago resulted in a deep-going study of Jewish history, philosophy and law (which led him at one point to contemplate conversion).  The Endless Light, his trio for piano, violin and cello, came out of a sojourn in Jerusalem; one movement, David Street Blues, was played by the National Symphony Orchestra on the 40th anniversary of the state of Israel.  Further plans envisioned a large piece, perhaps a cantata, to be performed at the Citadel in the Israeli capital by orchestra, jazz quartet and up to 100 voices, with libretto in English and Hebrew. ‘I'd want that to be a glorification of man's relationship to God,’ said Kellaway.  ‘Not fear -- there's plenty of that around already -- but the glory. Consider the psalms, and the majesty they contain.’

As Roger sees it, a life in music must be one of universality, of interconnectedness.

Consider this recital: whether in the romanticism of Johnny Mandel's Emily or the gentle self-mockery of You Took Advantage of Me the roll-and-rumble of Ellington's early Creole Love Call (which is a blues) or trombonist Charles Sonnastine's Blackwall Tunnel Blues (which isn't), he finds new and poignant things to say. He can stride, as he shows on a playful When I Grow Too Old To Dream, then explore the light-and-shadow of Hoagy Carmichael's brooding New Orleans. And, ending the program, tender his own heartfelt plea for world understanding, in the new-age accents of "Un Canto Per La Pace," A Song for Peace.

In a sense, Roger Kellaway remains the same kid who mastered Bud Farrington's drum kit in my basement more than four decades ago. Musically omnivorous, intellectually tireless, energy undiminished, he's sui generis, his spirit growing and deepening by the day.

‘What's happened to me, I think, is that I've renewed what I can call my sense of spiritual responsibility: responsibility to myself to grow spiritually, and have that effect everything in my life.  Now, when I sit at the piano, I never waste time.  If I'm here it's to play, to get to the heart of as much music as I can, and to share it, communicate it.’

Which is, beyond any doubt or argument, precisely what he does here.”

[Insert notes to Roger Kellaway: The Art of Interconnectedness, Challenge Records, CHR 70042].