Kellaway is currently fronting a piano-guitar-bass trio, which he claims to be the fulfillment of a “childhood dream.” Oscar Peterson led just such a group in the Fifties, and Kellaway, a lifelong Peterson fan who has always enjoyed playing without a drummer, knows how to make the most of the elbow room afforded by that wonderfully flexible instrumentation. Russell Malone is the guitarist, Jay Leonhart the bassist. The three men opened the set with a super-sly version of Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe,” and within four bars you knew they were going to swing really, really hard. So they did, with Kellaway pitching his patented curve balls all night long, including a bitonal arrangement of Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” and what surely must have been the first time that the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” has ever been performed by a jazz group.
Everybody in the band (including vibraphonist Stefon Harris, who joined the trio for “Cotton Tail,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “52nd Street Theme”) was smoking. Kellaway, though, was…well, I really don’t have words to describe the proliferating creativity and rhythmic force of his piano playing. Sarah did pretty well, though: “Did you see my jaw drop?” she asked me when it was all over. Russell Malone, with whom I chatted between sets, put it even more tersely. “That man is scary,” he said, shaking his head.
After I came home, I looked up my Washington Post review of the last time I heard Kellaway in person, a two-piano gig in 2004 with Bill Charlap at the second keyboard:
I was lucky enough to be at Birdland when Roger Kellaway and Bill Charlap gave the best live two-piano jazz performance I’ve heard in my entire life. The bedazzlingly eclectic Kellaway, who has been holed up on the West Coast for years, finally decided to head east and show the rest of the world his formidable stuff. For his long-delayed return…he joined forces with Charlap, who usually prefers suave understatement to single combat. Not this time: Kellaway was loaded for bear, and Charlap rose to the occasion. Their version of “Blue in Green” suggested an off-the-cuff collaboration between Bill Evans and Maurice Ravel, while the ferociously competitive “Strike Up the Band” with which they set the evening in motion sounded like two guys shooting roman candles at each other in a locked room. (“Lotta black notes on that page,” Charlap said to me afterward, grinning slyly.)
This set was that good.
Kellaway and his colleagues will be at the Jazz Standard through Sunday night. If you’re anywhere near New York City between now and then–and I’m talking about a five-state radius–do your damnedest to come hear them. If not, fear not: IPO, Kellaway’s new record label, is taping the engagement for release on a forthcoming live CD. In the meantime, go out right this second and get a copy of Remembering Bobby Darin, the first album by the West Coast edition of Kellaway’s Peterson-style trio.
What are you waiting for? Get moving!