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Musician Plays Off His Taste for Eclectic : Heavily influenced by the classical, Roger Kellaway often strays from jazz, but always feels drawn back to it.

August 18, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mention the name Roger Kellaway, and the reaction you get may vary widely, depending on whom you're talking to.

Is he the jazz pianist, who has worked with Sonny Rollins and numerous others, and had his own respectable jazz career? Is he the studio musician/hip player-about-Los Angeles whose workload included a stint with Joni Mitchell? Is he the classically trained musician whose ambitious Cello Quartet intertwined jazz and classical notions? Is he a forefather and/or culprit of the new-age scene?

What, exactly, is Roger Kellaway all about? It's a complicated question with an answer that's still evolving.

Last month, a crowd flocked to the Ladera ranch on the outskirts of Ojai to hear Kellaway in a hot, but fairly idyllic outdoor setting. It turned out to be a portrait of an artist as an eclectic man. He played a tribute to Stravinsky and swung on Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call." He merged Olivier Messiaen-like sonorities with Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and later did "New England Transport," with a hymn-like theme tucked, Charles Ives-fashion, into more atonal material.

On the downside, he also indulged in some simplistic noodlings with new age-y banalities that made at least one listener uneasy. Like Kellaway's musical career, this concert was all over the map and back.

Kellaway's personal map has taken him from his native Massachusetts to New York to Los Angeles, where he became a first-call studio player and composer; his score for "A Star is Born" won an Oscar nomination. Burned out on the musical hustle of L.A., Kellaway returned to New York in 1983 and was based there for a decade.

And now, Kellaway is one of the most recent artist emigres to Ojai. Once back in Southern California, he noted, "I didn't want to move back into the studio scene, because you get quite buried. There's no doubt that the years in the studios were more secure, financially, than what I'm doing now, but I still choose to be out there, performing in the world."

Although he and his wife Jorjana have lived in Ojai for just a year, Kellaway is no stranger to the area. In 1972, he was one of four keyboardists to record Steve Reich's "Four Organs," along with Reich, Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson. That year, they performed the piece at the Ojai Festival, with Kellaway's own Cello Quartet group playing the same weekend.

"This past June, I went down to say hello to Michael Tilson Thomas when he was at the Ojai Festival," Kellaway said. "He saw me and he said 'hey, this is where it all began.' "

The idea of relocating to Ojai came after talking with the Ojai-bound guitarist Robben Ford, whom Kellaway first met as a fellow band member backing up Joni Mitchell. Kellaway has also long been associated with Ojai-based Gene Lees, the songwriter and jazz writer whose monthly Jazzletter recently included a two-part chronicle of Kellaway's long, winding career.

These days, the path to Kellaway takes you to a spacious ranch house close to Lake Casitas. Art lines the walls of the yawning, sparsely furnished living room area. On the coffee table sits a book called "Zen and the Art of Making a Living."

Next to the front door there is an odd-looking Aeolian harp--a wind-activated stringed instrument--created by Richard Waters, whose odd custom-designed instruments Kellaway collects. Asked about it, Kellaway led the visitor into his instrument-crammed music room, where you find Waters' "Revolving Diatonic Sound Generator," with a huge hubcap as a base.

One morning last week, the Kellaway house was permeated with the enigmatic, almost ascetically spare sound of Morton Feldman's music. This might come as a surprise to someone who has heard Kellaway in his more lyrical mode.

"I listen mostly to 20th-Century classical music," Kellaway said. "My interest is in how different people design the sound spectrum. My heart's desire is to go more toward what we're listening to, not necessarily in terms of the abstraction of it, but in terms of music that has less motion to it. If there's less motion, there should be more room to just travel on the sound.

"I'm interested in experimenting in that area, which, of course, I really can't do from a jazz point of view."

But then, as the pianist explained, "to call myself a jazz pianist, as most people have done, is only partly correct. I'm more like an improviser who uses jazz."

Kellaway was born in 1939, and at an early age was pulled in many musical directions simultaneously. "I was learning about Dixieland and modern jazz at the same time, plus listening to (Stravinksy's) 'Le Sacre du Printemps,' Woody Herman, Andre Previn, and I loved (Schoenberg's) 'Verklerte Nacht.' "

Sure enough, look in the Kellaway bin in your music store, and you're likely to find his recent jazz standard albums on the Concord label, and his newest project, "Windows," on the Angel label. Stylistically diverse, "Windows" hearkens back to his Cello Quartet, with cello as a lead melodic instrument, singing atop piano and percussion parts.

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