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Roger Kellaway: Live at the Jazz Standard

Roger Kellaway has the kind of monumental piano technique for which it is hard to find analogues. A modernized version of Dick Hyman is perhaps one. Like Hyman, Kellaway can knock you flat and run you over while sounding like he has the gas pedal halfway down. Check out his solo here on “C Jam Blues.” No one else plays those wild, precise, sideways-spilling runs, beyond era or rather from all eras at once, so convoluted and yet swung so hard they make you laugh out loud.

This quartet album provides a more generous exposure to Kellaway’s vast piano universe than any of his recent solo and trio recordings. The reason is that it is two CDs containing almost two hours of spontaneous live music recorded at the Jazz Standard in New York. Kellaway likes to play without drums. The fact that the propulsion here comes collectively from the whole band makes it lighter and more fluid while still ferocious.

Guitarist Russell Malone, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and bassist Jay Leonhart all get lots of space to strut their strong stuff. But Kellaway is on another level. Over 13 tracks, every single one of his solos is erudite and imposing and impish and wonderfully odd. The piece with the most of all of these qualities is “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” which starts humbly, in a twangy little lope, and builds weight and density until it becomes ironically grandiose. Irony in Kellaway sounds innate. It dries all the self-pity out of soul-baring songs like “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

The one piece without irony is Kellaway’s only original, “All My Life,” poignant and sonorous in the hands of guest classical cellist Borislav Strulev.

Issues? Only two. “Freddie Freeloader” is too long and discursive at 16 minutes and the mediocre audio quality puts this excellent music at arm’s length.

Originally Published