Roger Kellaway, pianist

Rhapsody in BlueFascinating Rhythms

January 27-28, 2024

Photo Credit: Jorjana Kellaway

Roger Kellaway, Pianist

Bringing love, passion and talent to ‘Visions’

Like many composers, Roger Kellaway can’t stop composing. “It’s something you can’t turn off,” he says, chuckling, as he talks about the various music projects that keep him busy, well into his 80s.

That suggests love and passion for one’s art. Combined with exceptional skill and talent, it has made Roger Kellaway among the music industry’s most in-demand composers, arrangers and pianists for close to seven decades. The Grammy Award-winning, Oscar-nominated Ojai resident has recorded more than 250 albums, having worked with everyone from Duke Ellington to Elvis Presley, Joni Mitchell to Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett to Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones to Yo-Yo Ma.

Such love, passion and talent is heard in the music Roger composed for “Visions of America,” the photo-symphony project conceived by renowned photojournalist Joseph Sohm, Roger’s good friend and Ojai neighbor. On January 27 and 28, New West Symphony will present a suite version of “Visions,” including updated visual images by Sohm and Roger on piano, as part of its “Fascinating Rhythms” concert.

Conducted by NWS Artistic and Music Director Michael Christie 11 years after the orchestra presented the West Coast premiere of the landmark symphony, “Visions of America” represents one of Roger’s proudest accomplishments, for a number of reasons, starting with the people he worked with.

“I’d never worked with Joe before,” he recalls, “but he approached me with the idea of

putting together a multimedia show with photos. I had composed music for 29 feature films, but I’d always been curious about putting music to visuals. Joe’ project became another vehicle, with some motion clips, some stills, and me reacting musically to his photography.

“And he structured the show like he did his book, in segments. I like doing it that way; it’s simpler, you can think about a set of visuals and what music to come up with for a segment rather than darting all over the place. And then you can link it together with transitions.”

When it came to the songs, Roger and Joe reached out to Alan and Marilyn Bergman, with whom Roger had composed “I Have the Feeling I’ve Been Here Before,” a song for Carmen McRae back in 1972.

“It’s been a good partnership,” notes Roger of his connection with the Bergmans, with whom he’s composed a total of nine songs. “That they wanted to be part of ‘Visions’ was blessing for us.”

The first song the Bergmans and Roger composed for “Visions” was, fittingly, “We the People,” based on the preamble to the Constitution.

“We saw this piece as an American theme, an anthem,” says Roger. “When we premiered it in Philadelphia in 2009, Patti Austin was the vocalist and did a great job. And within the last two years, Sheléa, a protégé of Quincy Jones, did a fabulous version, maybe the best version we ever had in public performing.”

Roger and the Bergmans created four additional songs for “Visions,” and that became the show New West Symphony performed in January 2013. “Natalia Staneva [NWS CEO] told us that was the best-selling show they ever had,” says Roger, smiling. “And for several years, we’ve been talking about doing something again, and so for January 2024 we’ll be doing a ‘suite’ version, to go with an entire show with an American theme.”

Today, “Visions of America” remains as relevant as ever, says its composer.

“At this point, in fact, it’s more important than ever,” says Roger, “because the political pressure in the last five or six years seems to threaten the existence of democracy. So any exposure of basic American themes, and the greatness of this country, is important. It’s a fundamental aspect of who we are.”

The whole process of creating “visions of America,” Roger adds, was an education for him.

“Joe Sohm is an American history teacher, and that’s the underpinning of what ‘Visions of America’ is about,” he says. “He’s become the most prolific photographer on American subjects in the world, he’s been to every state, and he has the historical knowledge to back up what he presents.

“And I felt more patriotic by participating in the experience; I could relate more to the history of the country. It’s a great country, and I have a real good feeling that America will survive and weather this current storm, although it’s a hell of a storm.”

Roger also appreciates the overwhelmingly positive feedback he has received from audiences.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to who saw ‘Visions of America’ has adored the show,” he says. “They consider it a real stimulating experience, not just from watching show itself but because its content renews and strengthens their feeling about being an American. We don’t always fully appreciate living here. You take it for granted until you come across ‘Visions of America,’ and you start relating to the fact that you are American, and that democracy is something to be treasured and nurtured.”

So is the ability and desire to keep working, and composing. One of Roger’s most recent works was a song he wrote with Alan Bergman: “Wherever I May Go (for Marilyn),” following Marilyn’s passing in 2022.

“Alan sent the lyric to my wife and I,” Roger says, “and we couldn’t get past the first few lines without crying. I always cared for both of them deeply.”

He’s also writing music to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “The Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet” series of albums on A&M Records, considered by some to have launched “New Age” music.

“And I have a few gigs here and there,” smiles the man who, at age 22, was already playing record dates and jazz clubs in New York City with, among others Lena Horne. “Yes, I write all the time. It keeps me young.”