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Before & After: Roger Kellaway

The newly octogenarian pianist and composer sits down for his first JazzTimes listening session

Roger Kellaway
Roger Kellaway (photo: Jorjana Kellaway)

Roger Kellaway recently hit a major milestone: He turned 80 on November 1. For many who reach that monumental threshold, it’s a time for reflection and winding down. However, those concepts don’t exist for a Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated pianist/composer/arranger/bandleader who’s recorded more than 250 albums and scored an impressive list of films and TV shows. He recently finished a weeklong double engagement at Birdland in New York, playing both downstairs (in a trio with guitarist Roni Ben-Hur and bassist Jay Leonhart) and upstairs (with the Django Festival Allstars, who celebrated their 20th anniversary).

Upon returning home to Southern California, Kellaway performed with his West Coast trio—Bruce Forman on guitar and John Clayton on bass—at Vitello’s in Studio City. He also works regularly with a young 10-piece ensemble led by trumpeter Ilya Serov, in addition to creating new classical and jazz commissions and working on jazz combo recordings. On a very un-L.A. wet afternoon just before Thanksgiving, Kellaway experienced his first Before & After listening session. It took place at his Larchmont Village condo, which he and wife Jorjana use as an urban hub, away from their main residence in Ojai, 75 miles outside of Los Angeles.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the songs in this Before & After:


1. Roberta Piket
“Threnody” (One for Marian: Celebrating Marian McPartland, Thirteenth Note). Piket, piano; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone and flute; Virginia Mayhew, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Bill Mobley, trumpet and flugelhorn; Harvie S, bass; Billy Mintz, drums and percussion. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: The flautist reminds me of Hubert Laws. The last flute player I worked with was Mel Martin in San Francisco—very nice. Good piano player … There’s a myriad of guys that could be, not that they all sound alike. Once Eddie Gomez and Scott LaFaro came along, everybody was into playing [bass] in the upper register. I have not played with a whole lot of bassists that really play the upper register beautifully. Michael Moore was one, and we did about two years together in New York. I always loved his playing. Also a wonderful bower. Do I know this person? It’s somebody younger … The lines are younger than say, Frank Wess. Well, I have no idea who that was.

AFTER: I knew her [McPartland] and I knew her husband [cornetist Jimmy McPartland]. I played bass with him when I was 19 years old on the road. [Piket] plays with New York energy, which is wonderful, and she has a nice edge. Nice music with great lines and a good player. Who is the flute player?

2. Oscar Hernández & Alma Libre
“Silent Prayers” (Love the Moment, Origin). Hernández, piano; Justo Almario, saxophone and flute; Gilbert Castellanos, trumpet; Dayren Santamaria, violin; Oskar Cartaya, bass; Christian Moraga, percussion. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: The last Latin-jazz thing I did was in the basement of a very famous jazz club in Manhattan, in the Village. It wasn’t the Vanguard, but it was equally as famous. I remember playing down there with Gerry Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer, and I was the guest with a Latin band there once. Also I did a lot of duos there on the street level. This reminds me of another flute player, Dave Valentin, and we did some Latin things together. I can tell you I wouldn’t spend any time listening to this and it doesn’t do anything for me.   

AFTER: It’s pleasant, nice music. I don’t know Oscar. Here’s the thing: First of all, there’s only four or maybe five piano players that I’ve even listened to in the last five years. In terms of the jazz scene, since I’ve done so much writing, I never got into the habit of going out. One thing I did discover when I did go out, whether in New York or L.A., if the band is really hot, I have a hard time sitting in the audience—I want to be up there on the stage. So there’s a lot about the jazz community in L.A. that I don’t know about, mostly because we live in Ojai. That’s one of the reasons we got this condo, to do other things. Like we went to the last big [Los Angeles] Jazz Society Awards meeting, and all my friends were there—it was beautiful. I’ve been playing as a guest for a young Russian trumpet player named Ilya Serov. He’s got a 10-piece band and sings [too]. He should play more trumpet than he does, because he’s a better player than anyone gets to know. But he’s 32 and knows more about what’s going on in the scene than I do. I’m playing with him because I’m sort of the “elder statesman.” There are two things that happen: I get respect from the band, because the band is young. And they have a newer kind of audience, and that’s fun. That’s also a reason for the condo and being in L.

3. Bill Evans
“You’re Gonna Hear from Me” (Another Time: The Hilversum Concert, Resonance). Evans, piano; Eddie Gomez, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 1968.

BEFORE: Oh, I love this tune. Well, Bill Evans comes to mind, and I do [recognize the tune]. All I can think of is “You Can’t Take That Away from Me,” but that’s not the title. But it has a title like that. I wish the bass player and drummer would stop, just let the playing be, without all that stuff, and give him some time. When I had my own trio with [drummer] John Guerin and [bassist] Tommy Williams, they’d start doing that and I’d stop playing and just sit there with my arms crossed. We didn’t talk for seven years.

AFTER: I met Bill once, backstage at Shelly’s Manne-Hole. That’s the only time I met him, and I got to know him mostly through Gene Lees because they were dear friends. That’s it—“You’re Gonna Hear from Me,” right. Was it [Larry] Bunker on drums? I played with him for awhile. I always appreciated Bill, and did you know he was a flute player? Gene Lees told me that it was his first instrument. That’s all you got for me today is flute players [laughs]. I appreciated the fact that [Evans] wanted an interaction as the improvisation goes forward. That’s a personal thing, and I don’t particularly like to have that happen when I’m improvising. Maybe that’s because of my Dixieland background. That has a lot to do with how I think about playing.

Was that early Bill? The reason I ask is because some things that he played didn’t sound that familiar to me as how I define Bill Evans. There were little spurts where you say, “Oh yeah, that’s Bill,” and then there was a lot of other stuff. I think I heard Bill with Eddie [Gomez] probably more than with Scott LaFaro. But when Bill was playing with Scott LaFaro, that really was a period when I wasn’t paying any attention to piano music. I feel the same way classically, by the way. I don’t pay attention to classical pianists either. I like orchestras, orchestration and things that teach me something. Listening to music is very often a studying point. When we do a party, my wife asks me to put on some type of music that won’t take me away. Because I’ve spent so much of my life listening and analyzing. What’s been doing it for me lately is Gene Harris.

4. Mose Allison
“No Name” (American Legend Live in California, IBis). Allison, piano; Bill Douglass, bass; Pete Magadini, drums. Recorded in 2006.

BEFORE: This reminds me of Denny Zeitlin. Is that Buster [Williams] on bass? I like the energy of the track and the kinds of things that happen in the composition. Denny and I have known each other since I was 19 years old. He and I share CDs from time to time, so I’ve heard his trio many times before. It’s not a pretty piano, I tell you that—tuner! Come on, come on, go someplace else. You can take it off, it’s getting boring.

AFTER: What this brings up is, it’s interesting as a composer who improvises. What’s important is to know when you play an idea, especially a repetitive one, how long it will go before it dies. You’ve got to have a sense of that, and for me it’s too long. For me it died. No shit, I would have never guessed Mose—2006, wow, late in his life. I don’t know the drummer, but I’ve played with the bass player. Well, I love Mose’s basic playing and that reminds me of Bobby Dorough, who was a dear friend of mine for 40 years. In terms of the individuality of the talent, there was no box you could put Bobby Dorough in, except maybe with Hoagy Carmichael. Now Mose is kind of like that and really had his own thing. I knew him as a vocalist, and as a pianist … that idea still died. Mose Allison, my goodness!

5. Eddie Palmieri
“Palo Pa’ Rumba” (Full Circle, Ropeadope). Palmieri, piano; Jonathan Powell, trumpet; Jimmy Bosch, Conrad Herwig, trombones; Louis Fouché, alto saxophone; Nelson González, tres; Luques Curtis, bass; “Little” Johnny Rivero, congas and cowbell; Nicky Marrero, bongos; Camilo Molina, timbales; Herman Olivera, lead and chorus vocals; Jeremy Bosch, background vocals. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: I love this music, but I don’t have any idea who it is. The chart is interesting and it’s a workout for the lead percussionist. What’s interesting about Latin music is that it’s the same relationship as my group with piano, bass, and guitar. Air comes through the instruments. It’s almost like a chamber group. And Latin is the same thing, because it often doesn’t use a drum set, it’s timbales and congas. So air comes through and it kind of has that chamber feel, but the energy is different and wonderful. I love the energy. I still don’t know who this is and I honestly don’t know anyone who plays that way. It’s someone who has played Latin music a lot and is very comfortable with it. I have not played Latin music much. The first time I played with a Latin bassline was with Paquito D’Rivera, and the bass player was Lincoln Goines.

AFTER: Well, it certainly wasn’t dead. Isn’t there a piano player named Michel Camilo? He would have been the only person I could think of, and Eddie is another one. But he’s a name I haven’t heard in 30 years.

6. Monty Alexander
“Hurricane Come and Gone/Moonlight City” (Harlem-Kingston Express Vol. 2: The River Rolls On, Motéma). Alexander, piano; Earl Appleton, keyboards; Andy Bassford, guitar; Hassan Shakur, acoustic bass; Joshua Thomas, electric bass; Courtney Panton, percussion; Obed Calvaire, Karl Wright, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: There’s a B-3 in the background. That’s Wes [Montgomery] stuff and Gene Harris licks. I’d say Monty Alexander [chuckles]. Bass player reminds me of Ray Brown. 

AFTER: We go back a long way, you know, he introduced me to my wife and we’ve been married 54 years. She was working at this club and had the night off. They called her in to work and she asked, “Who’s playing?” “Monty Alexander.” “Okay, I’ll come in, I like Monty.” He called me to sub and that’s how we met. And then Monty came in later and played bass with me. I think a lot of people don’t know Monty plays bass. Kenny Barron plays bass. So Monty played bass with me, and then he played piano and I played bass with him. That was the first night Jorjana and I met, 54 years ago. So we have a little mileage. I love his energy and ideals.

7. Akiko Hamilton Dechter
“I Remember You” (Equal Time, Capri). Akiko Tsuruga, organ; Graham Dechter, guitar; Jeff Hamiton, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: This kind of reminds me of Bruce Forman. Nice band. I’m not really into organ, so I don’t know that many B-3 players, except Larry Goldings. In my childhood I knew Jack McDuff. I never knew Jimmy Smith personally. I like this sound, though. I don’t know if that’s a B-3 player or a piano player playing B-3. Nice groove, and also the B-3 player is not playing the bass line.

AFTER: I know Jeff Hamilton quite well, and for a long time. I love Jeff’s playing, it’s an art. It’s interesting listening to drums, because when I listen to Oscar [Peterson], I always listen to the old trio, or I listen to 1958 Stan Getz with the Oscar Peterson Trio. That’s how I warm up. If I can blow through that seven-minute “I Want to Be Happy,” then I know I’m starting to get in shape.

8. Fred Hersch & the WDR Big Band
“Pastorale” (Begin Again, Palmetto). Hersch, piano; Vince Mendoza, arranger and conductor; Andy Haderer, Wim Both, Ruud Breuls, Rob Bruynen, trumpets; Andy Hunter, Andrea Andreoli, Ludwig Nuss, trombones; Mattis Cederberg, bass trombone and tuba; Karolina Strassmayer, Johan Hörlén, alto saxophones; Olivier Peters, Paul Heller, tenor saxophones; Jens Neufang, baritone saxophone; Paul Shigihara, guitar; John Goldsby, bass; Hans Dekker, drums. Recorded in 2018 and 2019.

BEFORE: That’s Maria Schneider and that’s got to be Frank Kimbrough. The orchestration reminds me of Schneider and she gets a lot of what she does from [Bob] Brookmeyer. But I never heard a track of hers with a piano solo that long, and that one is all written out. I really admire people who can do that. I never, ever. Even with 12 years of classical training, it’s never been comfortable for me. I’m comfortable improvising. Give me a lead sheet. But that was some wonderful piano playing, and I like the orchestration. Again, the idea of the piece goes on too far, before it needs a recap for you to get back into the beginning of the melody.

AFTER: I know them [WDR Orchestra], out of Cologne [Germany]. I had a hunch you were going to play me Fred Hersch. I had known him maybe 20 years ago or more. Interesting track, and the guy can play the piano. It’s pretty and he has a nice lyrical sense. But the orchestration does remind me of Maria Schneider or Brookmeyer. She studied with Gil Evans, but she studied more with Brookmeyer and he gave her the long line.

9. Matthew Whitaker
“Tranquility” (Now Hear This, Resilience Music Alliance). Whitaker, piano; Yunior Terry, bass; Ulysses Owens, Jr., drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: It doesn’t sound like anybody I spent any time listening to, though I don’t listen to that much piano music anyway. I don’t recognize the style. Is this a woman?

AFTER: For a second I was thinking about Joanne Brackeen, in the way that he was hitting some of the notes. That’s why I asked you about the woman idea. So I knew it was a curveball [laughs about hearing someone known for organ playing piano]. Nice song, nice music …

10. Ahmad Jamal
“Poinciana” (Ballades, Jazz Village). Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: “Poinciana”? Again, I don’t recognize this style. I don’t know who this is. I thought maybe it was Denny Zeitlin for a second. It is “Poinciana,” I haven’t heard that tune in a long time, Ahmad Jamal, I think … I can tell you, it’s a player that doesn’t really care about the melody, but cares about the stuff that goes around the melody. “If there’s a melody, I don’t want to sing it.” So I don’t know who that is.

AFTER: No kidding! He’s played it a million times, and already did a version where he played the melody beautifully with a nice drum beat. It is interesting; I like Ahmad Jamal. But I don’t listen to him often. That was quite a curious moment.

Chris J. Walker

Chris J. Walker is a music journalist based in Los Angeles who has covered the jazz and blues scene all over Southern California, and throughout the rest of California, as much as possible for over 25 years. He, however, is not totally relegated to jazz and blues, and occasionally reviews folk, rock, R&B, funk and world music events as well.