Saturday, May 28, 2016

Wynton Kelly - "A Happy Feeling"

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


Of the late pianist Wynton Kelly [1931-1971], Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed. have written: “His chording [comping or accompaniment] behind a soloist has a gentle but dynamic bounce. He never does anything to startle a listener, but he has a bright, swinging, communicative style that always appeals. He deserves wider recognition.”

And so the following piece about Wynton by Gene Lees in an effort to promote this wider recognition.

“If they gave awards for unpretentiousness, Wynton Kelly would win a large loving cup. The stocky pianist, just entering his fourth year in the rhythm section of the Miles Davis quintet-turned-sextet, has the distinction of being about the most unobtrusive pianist in jazz, while at the same time inspiring an enormous professional admiration.

If being imitated is the mark of having arrived, Kelly has arrived. His ebullient approach to solos has seeped into the playing of a wide variety of pianists, and he has written the very definition of good comping.

"Wynton," said Voice of America jazz commentator Willis Conover, one of the many persons who has tried (with middling success) to pin down verbally the nature of Kelly and his music, "has a marvelous go-to-hell attitude. Like the Miles Davis attitude turned active, and with humor added."

Not that there is a hint of antagonism in Kelly or his playing. "He always projects a happy feeling, regardless of the tempo," said trombonist J. J. Johnson, currently a co-worker of Kelly's in the Davis group. But there is a disinclination to overwhelm the listener. Kelly seems content to let the listener come to him.

"Wynton has by no means shown all the things he can do," commented Bill Evans, a forerunner of Kelly's with Miles. (First there was Red Garland, then Evans, who in turn was succeeded by Kelly.)

"For one thing," Evans continued, "Wynton is a fine accompanist. I heard him first with Dinah Washington, and immediately I felt an affinity for his playing.

"He has a wonderful technique, and he gets a true piano sound out of the instrument. He approaches the instrument legitimately and, although I don't know his training background, I know that if someone else hasn't disciplined him, he has disciplined himself.

"I can hear in his mind that he's broad enough to be able to play solo — that is, unaccompanied by rhythm section — but I like him in a rhythm section so much that I'm not sure I'd want him to do it."

After a moment's reflection, Evans added, "Wynton and I approach jazz essentially the same way.

"Wynton is an eclectic, not in the cheap way, but in the sense of copying the spirit and not the letter of the things he has liked."

The man who elicits this musicianly admiration was born in Brooklyn in 1931. Like his friend Oscar Peterson, Kelly has West Indian parents. When the two meet, they will sometimes slip into a West Indian patois that leaves them laughing and other musicians staring in confusion.

Kelly started playing piano at the age of 4. "I didn't have much formal study," he said.

"I went to Music and Art High School and Metropolitan Vocational. They wouldn't give us piano, so I fooled around with the bass and studied theory.

"I used to work around Brooklyn with Ray Abrams, the tenor player, and his brother Lee, the drummer, and also Cecil Payne, Ahmad Abdul-Malik, and Ernie Henry. We all came up together.

"One of the first bands I worked with was Hot Lips Page's. Then I went with Lockjaw Davis for about a year. After that I did a stint with the Three Blazes. Then Dinah Washington. I worked for Dizzy Gillespie too. I was between Dinah and Dizzy for years."

Kelly joined the Miles Davis group in the early part of 1959. It was then that the public really began to be aware of him, not only as a soloist but as a pulsing rhythm-section player. Though he has recorded six albums on his own —"three for Vee Jay, two for Riverside, and one I made in 1950 when I was 19 that doesn't even count" — it is nonetheless for his work in the Davis unit that he is best known.

If the Kelly style is not an obtrusive one — not a style that one hears once and ever afterwards recognizes — it has its curious distinctiveness. There is in it a highly personal ease and lightness, an infectious, casually bouncing quality to which one rapidly becomes attached.

"He never," J. J. Johnson said, "lets his technical facility, which he has plenty of, dominate. The swing is the thing with Wynton."

As an accompanist for horns, Kelly is the ne plus ultra of skilled, meaningful, and yet non interfering comping. "He does all the right things at the right times," Johnson said.

Kelly loves to comp. "In fact," he said, "at one time I didn't like to solo. I'd just like to get a groove going and never solo.

"The first pianist I admired for comping was Clyde Hart, and later Bud Powell.
"The way you comp varies from group to group. Some guys will leave a lot of space open for you to fill, like Miles. Others won't. And so you have to use your discretion. In general, I like to stay out of a man's way. But you have to judge it by the situation. I did some things with Dizzy I wouldn't do with Dinah, and things I did with them that I wouldn't do with Miles.

"It's good to sit down and hear how other guys comp and then learn to do it yourself."

Kelly's tastes among pianists are predictably broad. An incomplete list of his preferences includes:

Oscar Peterson —"First of all, he's tasty. And he knows the instrument very well."

Erroll Garner —"He's a hell of a stylist, and he's very versatile."

Bud Powell —"I respect Bud as one of the main figures in starting modern jazz piano."

Bill Evans — "For beauty. That's all I can say. He also knows the instrument very well. He's one of the prettiest piano players I've heard in a long time."

Phineas Newborn—"We were in the Army together, bunk to bunk. He's a genius."

Walter Bishop Jr.—"I've liked him since I was a kid."

McCoy Tyner — "He's a serious-minded musician. I like his style, and he fits well with the other instruments in Coltrane's group."

Unlike most pianists who come to prominence in someone else's group, Kelly has no pressing urge to form a group of his own.

"It's in the back of my mind," he said. "But not now.”

Source - January 3, 1963 edition of Downbeat Magazine.

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