At long last, Verve has reissued Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet, for thirty years one of the most eagerly sought-after recordings on the used-LP market. This is its first appearance on CD, and I’ll be reviewing it for the Washington Post next month. Since you probably haven’t heard of Kellaway or the Cello Quartet–most people haven’t–I thought I’d reprint this profile of Kellaway that I wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 1995. The original title was “Jazz’s Most-Admired Unknown.”
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Roger Kellaway is the greatest unknown pianist in jazz.
“Unknown” is, of course, a relative concept. Among musicians, Kellaway is not only known but extravagantly admired. “I love Roger Kellaway,” says the hard-to-please Oscar Peterson. “He knows the tradition and he’s not afraid.” And he gets plenty of work for an unknown, not only as a pianist but as a composer and songwriter. He’s played with everybody from Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins to Bobby Darin and Joni Mitchell; he’s written music for Yo-Yo Ma, New York City Ballet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; his film-score credits include “Paper Lion” and “A Star Is Born.” Chances are that you’ve heard one of his compositions, the closing theme for the sitcom “All in the Family,” several dozen times.
Kellaway is, in short, the quintessential musician’s musician, a fact of which he is uncomfortably aware. While he doesn’t mind having the respect of his peers, he also wouldn’t mind a bit of celebrity to go along with it: “I don’t want to be everybody’s little secret. There’s nobody else in the world who does what I do, or does it the way I do it. I want more people to know that.”
Part of Roger Kellaway’s problem is that he’s a born eclectic. Though he can swing as hard as anyone, he has an unnerving habit of doing it in 7/4 time, or playing in two different keys at once, or throwing in a few top-of-the-keyboard tone clusters just to keep the rhythm section on its toes. These exotic techniques, which somehow sound as familiar as a 12-bar blues when Kellaway employs them, are the natural consequence of his omnivorous musical curiosity. In conversation, he’s as likely to bring up Benjamin Britten and Anton Webern (“He’s to 20th-century classical music what Thelonious Monk is to jazz”) as Duke Ellington and Art Tatum. “The idea that anything can go with anything is very appealing to me,” he says, “and classical music has taught me that the options are infinite. If I’m writing a piece and get stuck sonically, I put on a record by Charles Ives or Edgard Varese. These people just blow your head wide open.”
For all his determined eclecticism, Kellaway is anything but faceless. Whatever the context, his airy, sparkling playing is instantly recognizable. (If you’re listening to an unfamiliar jazz record on which the piano player abruptly drops a bright treble splat into the middle of a solo, it’s by Roger Kellaway.) But his refusal to stick with one style sits poorly with the button-down types who run the record business. “The majority of people simply aren’t interested in artists who have eclectic tastes,” he says with a resigned shrug. “Let’s say our lives are a wheel. Well, I’ve decided to take more spokes of that wheel, that’s all. But music-business types are suspicious of musicians like me. I confuse them. They can’t pigeonhole me.”
Kellaway’s closest brush with fame came in 1971 when he put together the Cello Quartet, a drummerless combo consisting solely of “instruments made of wood”: piano, cello, marimba and bass. “The cymbals and drums in a regular drum set fill up the air between the other instruments,” he explains. “Take them away, clear the air, and you get chamber music.” He persuaded Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, one of the hottest labels of the ’70s, to cut two albums featuring the group, “Cello Quartet” and “Come to the Meadow.” The rich, outdoorsy colors of the Cello Quartet set musicians’ heads spinning, but the listening public failed to sit up and take notice. Both albums sold modestly, went out of print, became cult classics and now fetch jaw-dropping prices on the used-LP market.
Though Kellaway went on to other things, he never lost his love for the sound of the instrument around which the Cello Quartet was built: “The cello just always killed me. It’s so wonderfully expressive, so perfect for playing melodies. I think it resonates with the body to a greater degree than perhaps any other musical instrument.” Not surprisingly, the thought of reviving the group remained at the back of his mind. Last year, he found another major label willing to give it a try: Angel Records, which was recently repositioned as the crossover line of EMI Classics. Kellaway added a pair of percussionists to the original lineup (“I wanted to add more ethnicity to the mix”) and recorded “Windows,” a gorgeous album that sums up his kaleidoscopic style as completely as any one album can.
“Imprisoned in every fat man,” Cyril Connolly famously said, “a thin one is wildly signaling to be let out.” Corollary: Imprisoned in every musician’s musician, a pop icon is dreaming of performing in stadiums packed with screaming fans. “I remember being on stage with Joni Mitchell and playing for 10,000 people,” Kellaway says. “I loved it. I remember saying to myself, `I can do this. This is comfortable.’ There could be a million people out there and it wouldn’t faze me. I don’t get frightened, I don’t hold back. I’m not afraid to show you who I am.”
To this end, Kellaway is putting together still another group, one that may be his least likely musical venture yet: a straight-ahead, no-frills jazz piano trio. “I want to do the trio format,” he says, “because it’s something I love to do. Except for Monty Alexander, nobody’s out there right now just laying it down and making your hair stand on end, and I still know how to do that. So I thought, `Why the hell not?’ And as long as we’re going to do it, let’s do it. Let’s play festivals, let’s play for big crowds. I want to really try and make some noise.” A quizzical look flashes across his lean, bespectacled face. “Maybe I’m not afraid to make a splash anymore.”
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Needless to say, he didn’t make a splash, and Windows is long out of print, but now you can find out what I was talking about back in 1995 by listening to Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet. So do.