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Roger Kellaway

Roger Kellaway Roger Kellaway Kent Lacin
"Let’s say life is a wheel, I just choose to have more spokes on the wheel. It’s something that interests me and makes my life interesting. I am hoping that when people come to hear me play, or they hear anything that I record, that it is a nice journey for them, no matter what it is that I do, whether it is the cello quartet, or it is Russell, Jay, Stefon, or Borislav. The Live At The Jazz Standard CD is kind of an interesting mixture, because now that I have a cello back in my life, I am extremely happy. I don’t know whether I like it more than the piano or not, but it is really a major instrument in my life," jazz pianist and composer Roger Kellaway told me, while discussing his recording of Live At The Jazz Standard, released in November, but originally recorded between May 25th- 28th, 2006, at the New York City Club. He was joined on that night by guitarist Russell Malone, bass virtuoso Jay Leonhart, cellist Borislav Strulev and vibraphonist Stefon Harris.

Kellaway was responding to my question as to whether or not he thought that his eclectic musical stylings have helped his career or perhaps kept him from receiving an even more elevated status in the music industry, than he already enjoys, which would be difficult to imagine, considering, he served as Bobby Darin’s Musical Director for three years, served as Kevin Spacey’s Musical Director for two years in conjunction with the filming of the 2004 movie Beyond The Sea, and recently served as the Musical Director for Van Morrison’s live CD / DVD recording at the Hollywood Bowl. Kellaway’s ability to combine diversity and excellence has gained him the respect of those throughout the music industry. His recordings with his cello quartets early in his career, have recently been released again. In addition, he has in the past received commissions that included a ballet for George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet, orchestra compositions for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The National Symphony, the New American Orchestra, a concerto for the New York Philharmonic, and chamber works performed at Carnegie Hall.

"In terms of the general public, I think that it is confusing. Let’s take Erroll Garner (jazz pianist/composer) for instance, somebody who could play for a very short period of time and was completely recognizable. Because I do so many different things, it is harder for my public or my fans to understand what the center is," says Kellaway.

Kellaway’s fondness for the music of Oscar Peterson, and that of Duke Ellington is in evidence on his current album. In fact Kellaway chose three Ellington tunes among the first five tracks of Live At The Jazz Standard, "Cottontail," opens his set, "C Jam Blues," follows, and the fifth track is, "I’m Beginning To See The Light."

"Duke Ellington wrote some great melodies, and when we look at the ability of the younger generation to do melody, it’s extremely frustrating, because they don’t know how to do it, which is too bad. Again, like Oscar Peterson is an example for my life, for sound, structure, imagination and melody, Duke fits in there, and they are great tunes to improvise on," says Kellaway.

As for why Kellaway settled on these three Ellington songs, "It just kind of turned out that way. "I’m Beginning To See The Light," was already in the book, and "C Jam Blues," was easy to pick, because we can throw it into any set and not have to worry about rehearsing anything. It is just the blues. "Cottontail," was also in the trio book."

Kellaway readily admits to the Oscar Peterson influences on Live At The Jazz Standard, "This takes me back to when I first met Oscar in Milan, I was with Gene Lees (book: The Will To Swing) and Gene turned to me and said, what is it about Oscar that you love? I said, ‘The will to swing, and that became the title of Gene’s book (an autobiography of Oscar Peterson)."

"In this day and age so many young musicians don’t even know what the word swing means, let alone how to play it. Most of my buddies who I learned it from, aren’t here anymore. I am torn between the legacy of it, and the necessity to continue doing it, but it isn’t the only thing that I want to do in my life. Live At The Jazz Standard absolutely represents the swing aspect, and it represents the Oscar Peterson Trio in the fifties," says Kellaway before launching into a history lesson, "You know that he started out with drums (in his ensemble). His first trio was a drum trio, but somewhere around ’51 he hooks up with Barney Kessel, and in ’54 I think is when Herbie (Herb Ellis) comes in, and ’59 is when Oscar goes to drums (drummer Ed Thigpen). He never really looks back, even when he has Joe Pass (guitarist-1970’s).

There are other great writers represented on Live At The Jazz Standard, such as, Hoagy Carmichael and Dinah Washington, with the recording of the seventh track, "The Nearness Of You."

Kellaway recalls, "The Nearness Of You," was Stefon’s idea, and the name of that game is called, let’s play a ballad, and what do you want to play? (he laughs) He just started playing."

On Live At The Jazz Standard, Kellaway also nods to saxophonist Sonny Rollins with his cover of, "Doxy," and to pianist / composer Thelonious Monk, with the inclusion of the, "52nd Street Theme."

Jazz fans may be surprised to learn that the old country tune, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," opens disk two of this two CD set. Kellaway explains why he included the song, written by the Sons of the Pioneers and made famous in Gene Autry’s 1935 film Tumbling Tumbleweeds, "I’ve always loved that song. That song and "(Cool) Clear Water." My engineer Drew Daniels is a bass player, and he plays in a lot of country type bands, so he knows all of the tunes. We looked at this tune, and I thought what are we going to do with this? How is this going to go? What you hear is how it got transformed, and it is extremely amusing to me, every time that we do, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." It is like Sonny Rollins’, "Way Out West," and when he did, "Tennessee Waltz." He (Rollins) has done some really odd tunes, that over the years you would think, wow what’s he going to do with that, and then he does what he does with it. It is beautiful."

In Kellaway’s words, "we have logged millions of miles together," referring to his longstanding friendship with bassist Jay Leonhart, so he was a natural for the Live At The Jazz Standard gig. He was introduced to cellist Borislav Strulev by Pat Phillips and Ettore Stratta, he enthusiastically speaks to the playing of vibraphonist Stefon Harris and his decision to connect with Russell Malone came about because of a conversation that Kellaway had with jazz vocalist Diana Krall.

"A few years ago I was doing a benefit with the Bobbie Kennedy Foundation, at UCLA and Diana Krall was there. We got into a conversation concerning me thinking about putting together an Oscar Peterson type swing trio, and her immediate response was, ‘Well you need Russell.’ That’s how the idea of Russell literally came into my mind. He had played on many of her recordings," says Kellaway.

Roger Kellaway has performed with Elvis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Yo Yo Ma, Joni Mitchell, Henry Mancini, Bobby Darin, Quincy Jones, Van Morrison and Michael Tilson Thomas, all of whom recognized Kellaway’s tremendous musical gifts. Kellaway also possesses that quality which only the very best artists have, and that is he has never allowed himself to become bigger than the music.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Roger Kellaway
  • Interview Date: 2/1/2005
  • Subtitle: I Was There - Beyond the Sea
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