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Jazz Workshop: Kellaway’s Triumph

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Last week in Paris, piano master Roger Kellaway accepted the Prix du Jazz Classique–the French Jazz Academy's award for Best Jazz Album of the Year. The album in question is Heroes by Kellaway's trio (with Bruce Forman on guitar and Dan Lutz on bass).

Even if you don't know Roger Kellaway's name, you probably know his work. The Massachusetts-born pianist/composer is a veteran Hollywood composer, nominated for an Oscar for his score of 1977's remake of A Star Is born; on better-trod ground, he is the one you hear playing the saloon-like, stride-piano closing theme to All in the Family. So busy is he, in fact, writing for screens large and small that he's only recorded five times in the last ten years, and two of those were tributes to his late Hollywood boss Bobby Darin.

For us little people, it's not enough. Kellaway is a virtuoso in the truest sense of the word: he can play anything, in any style. It should therefore come as no surprise that his main influence is Oscar Peterson. Heroes is an homage to the piano-guitar-bass combo that Peterson led in the '50s, and is mostly made up of the Canadian titan's set pieces from the period.

The question, then, is how a rare appearance from this splendid talent–a disc that's won a rather prestigious award, I might add–could arrive in my mailbox over a year ago and still slip below my radar? The answer, plain and simple, is that I wasn't paying attention. I gave it one listen (barely), and nothing jumped out at me. But jazz is a music in which the details matter… and, as a clever fellow told me some years ago, "The difference between an amateur and a professional is attention to detail." Lesson learned, and New Year's resolution self-evident.

As for Heroes, which I've finally been evaluating since the Prix du Jazz Classique was announced:

The sheer scope of Kellaway’s ability is mind-boggling. He can find the blues in a decidedly non-blues song, then overlay it with dizzying arpeggio cascades that jump away again (“Killer Joe”). He can play with both subtlety and sprightliness (“I Was Doing All Right”). He can stride, or spelunk thick chords, like nobody’s business. Even his comps demand attention.

So it says something that Kellaway’s not the pacesetter for the masterly Heroes. Traditionally the role of band personality is the drummer’s; this trio has none, and with bassist Lutz busy in the swing, the role falls to either Kellaway or Forman. While the latter may not present the fearsome virtuosity of the former, his sound—relaxed and delicate, from the Django Reinhardt/Barney Kessel school—defines most of the record.

“Night Train,” for example, is the one blues on the album, a raunchy one that hit big for James Brown (among others). When Kellaway launches into the first solo, however, he does all he can to conceal those origins in his oblong constructions and evasive harmonies. Then Forman takes over, his guitar like a direct tap in the song’s blues veins; where Kellaway stretched the chord structure, Forman settles directly into it, rolling out long gutbucket phrases. Next, Lutz follows Forman’s lead with a 1-4-5 walk so cocksure that he’s practically a blaxploitation-movie pimp. Even when Kellaway returns for a contrapuntal duel with Forman, it’s the guitarist who wins out; the pianist’s initially open harmonics slide almost subconsciously into greasy, sexy blues.

Meanwhile, “Midnight Sun” has a complex harmonic line that Kellaway plays with sensitivity and beauty, but it’s Forman who navigates the changes with an intricate melodic line that sounds more lyrical than it is. Forman even defines tracks by his absence: on the opener, Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe,” Kellaway does all the soloing. His work is steeped in blues feeling, and the whole performance goes in that direction largely because the guitar doesn’t take it elsewhere. 

Kellaway, of course, plays like fire all throughout, never without something to say. Nor should Dan Lutz be overlooked: He and Forman often team up to play with and against each other in a way that’s good for the guitarist but great for the bassist, who meets every harmonic challenge and poses a number of his own. While the two leads intertwine and face off in “52nd Street Theme,” it’s Lutz who holds them together in a pulse that’s both firm and as risky as a tightrope.

Heroes, then, is not in character with the piano hero to whom it pays tribute. Oscar Peterson was a towering musician who, while he worked sympathetically with his bandmates, always held sway over them. Kellaway’s trio won’t have that: the pianist brings the wizardry, but Forman brings the personality and Lutz holds them all together. One wouldn’t say it surpasses Peterson’s ‘50s trios, but there’s no question that it deserved the Prix du Jazz Classique…and many more accolades on top of it.

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About Michael J. West

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    I think that winning this award merits my pulling out my own copy of Heroes and playing it again for the first time in about a year. It’s also an appropriate time to do so in light of Peterson’s recent passing.

    Another fine write-up, Mr. West.