Roger Kellaway

I Was There: Roger Kellaway Plays from the Bobby Darin Songbook

by Robert R. Calder

24 January 2005


The normally admirable Roger Kellaway presumably astonished some people who turned up at those evenings when he appeared with Kevin Spacey. The two came together in connection with the film the latter has just made about the life of Bobby Darin; the film’s publicity should inform most people with access to the media about the singer’s life. Unfortunately, the agency which sent this CD out didn’t provide a track list, which would have been handy for a reviewer based in Europe!

Kellaway is not a musical chameleon, despite what any blurb says (and I don’t know what’s said in the notes I was never sent). He just does a wide range of things in music, most of which I have not had the chance to hear. I just know him as the pianist in the Clark Terry/Bob Brookmeyer Quintet of the middle 1960s (The Power of Positive Swinging was a splendid title for its splendid album) who played some terrific stride piano on one title with that group, as the pianist on the admirable Barney Miller half hour of wit which used to turn up on TV, and as the pianist on a number of solo albums and capable of even more stride episodes and performances. My time is limited—I admire the guy’s playing, and just because he can do lots more, why deny that as a sheer jazz pianist he can do more than enough. The rest don’t need citing in extenuation.

cover art

Roger Kellaway

I Was There: Roger Kellaway Plays from the Bobby Darin Songbook

US: 25 Jan 2005
UK: Available as import

While “Beyond the Sea” is a great opener, the whole set is, by and large, a kind of Kellaway-plays-standards sort of thing, with songs Darin sang at a time when he was regarded as an alternative Sinatra (the only Darin composition I remember is actually a blues recorded by Otis Spann with the Muddy Waters band about 40 years ago!).

The pianist is in tremendous orchestral form, the solo instrument has a fullness of sound not that many can manage. In “Charade”, the two-hand complementary runs are very startling. He’s not a showy player, he just likes to keep active. He is really an Art Tatum disciple it seems, making a full sound and maintaining a nice rhythm but doing neither in the most obvious ways. “My Buddy” is a tune with a long history at jazz funerals, and beside having been Darin’s youthful pianist 40-odd years ago, I suppose Kellaway might have accompanied some hornman or fiddler performing the tune among other obsequies in a church. Here he alternates between slow stride left hand and gospel chording, Art Tatum, and somebody sanctified, establishing real tension toward a moving conclusion.

“Just in Time” is an obvious case for stride, the timed accents of the left hand figures, but as a Tatumite (not easy to be!), Kellaway knows how to imply these accents while fitting in something linear below the right hand invention. He’s good at generating other lines, one hand accompanying the other.

With the music of Leslie Bricusse there is, however, the difficulty of not having strong jazz vehicles. “When I Look in Your Eyes” goes through phases of impressionism, and, to be frank, clichés. There’s something of an accompanist looking for a singer. Impressionism recurs in “The Shadow of Your Smile” and he tends to play lines on the same rhythm without necessarily retaining any harmonic foundation. At this point the obvious question arises: if this is a Kellaway solo CD rather than a melange for sale in relation to the Darin film, why at some point the pianist didn’t cut loose.

His own “I Was There” has more life and air, he’s more selective of the notes he plays, his left hand playing slow stride or a walking bass, and Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light” has its own strengths. There is a tendency here for the tune to emerge from amid the pianistics. I suppose one comparison possible is between Kellaway and the Pole Adam Makowicz, who pretty well devised an Art Tatum sort of style from outside the historical context of jazz piano within which Tatum began. The Pole has not Kellaway’s sumptuousness of general sound (who has?), and Kellaway here simply lacks a certain sparkle. Maybe he gets a little too reflective, too consistently medium tempo. Maybe the whole thing was planned to conclude with him singing the last number, in a sort of nostalgic, pianist’s singing voice. There’s just a certain fading of inspiration, judged at the high level some of Kellaway’s other recordings certainly do attain.

I Was There: Roger Kellaway Plays from the Bobby Darin Songbook


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