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.