Roger Kellaway’s Open Minds

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MONK: 52nd Street Theme. RODGERS-HART: Have You Met Miss Jones? ROLLINS: Doxy. DESMOND: Take Five. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. PORTER: Night and Day. TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Caravan / Roger Kellaway, pno; Bruce Forman, gtr; Dan Lutz, bs / IPO Recordings, no number

Roger Kellaway appears to be the modern-day Paul Smith. For those too young to remember, Smith was Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist for a couple of decades; then, in the 1970s, he made two extraordinary albums, Heavy Piano I & II, and suddenly he was on the map as a sort of modern-day Earl Hines or Art Tatum. (When I went to see Ella perform in Cincinnati in 1979, I went up to the bandstand during the intermission and asked for Paul Smith’s autograph!)

Kellaway, who turns 80 this year, has worked with Duke Ellington, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster and Bobby Darin, to name just a few. Having played all kinds of music, he now serves up a straightahead album of jazz standards using the old Nat Cole Trio lineup of piano-guitar-bass.

And what a trio it is! From the first notes of Thelonious Monk’s 52nd Street Theme to the last notes of Caravan, Kellaway plays with amazing fluidity of style and fertility of mind. His use of harmony is primarily of the pre-Bill Evans school, so you won’t hear too many altered chord positions here. It’s more like listening to George Shearing of the late 1940s-early ‘50s with an extra zing in the rhythmic drive.

A perfect example is Have You Met Miss Jones?, in which Kellaway limns the melody beautifully before taking off in a solo replete with dazzling single-note runs and flourishes, followed by a chorus in which he plays mostly moving chord patterns. And what terrific swing is generated by Bruce Forman’s guitar and Dan Lutz’ bass! I also enjoyed Forman’s solos, which reminded me of Tal Farlow. The man can swing, and he doesn’t play wimpy guitar. Lutz also takes a two-chorus solo on this one but, although a good musician, he is not as inventive as Kellaway or Forman. His solo is followed by a guitar-piano chase chorus that is simply extraordinary.

Kellaway also shows off his blues chops on Sonny Rollins’ Doxy as well as the ability to play two-handed, double-time runs. He really is a heck of a pianist! As good as Forman’s solo is  here, it’s not quite up to what Kellaway had just done—or what he does, now playing double time at 90 MPH, after Forman is finished. Take Five is a nice medium-tempo version of Paul Desmond’s classic tune, with the leader playing some dazzling variations.  Forman is also quite good on this one.

Much to my surprise, Kellaway plays Take the “A” Train at a medium slow ballad tempo, something I’ve never heard before, yet makes it work. So does Forman in his laid-back guitar solo. When Kellaway returns, the tempo doubles, and he himself plays double-time runs within that doubled tempo. Night and Day is taken at a nice, relaxed medium tempo, with bass and drums nudging the beat gently forward in a rocking swing rhythm.

The closer is a fairly uptempo rendition of Juan Tizol’s Caravan, which opens with Kellaway playing some interesting chords while Forman plays, and plays around with, the melody. The leader plays a wonderful single-note right-hand solo with chord punctuations while Forman taps the body of his guitar to create percussion effects. Kellaway’s piano solo, running three choruses, is spectacular as well as musically satisfying. Forman is almost up to the challenge Kellaway has set for him in his own solo, which also builds through multiple choruses.

This is a surprisingly wonderful album, full of excellent solos and several surprises. No matter what your taste in jazz, this is one new CD you’ve got to have!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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