Neil Kelly Quartet
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Neil Kelly Quartet

San Jose, California, United States | INDIE

San Jose, California, United States | INDIE
Band Jazz Jazz


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"Neil Kelly: Making beautiful music"

Neil Kelly isn't afraid to sound beautiful.

The jazz guitarist has a supple, translucent tone and a gift for writing long, sinuous lines. His debut recording, "Rivers Converge" (First Orbit Sounds) is a melodically luxuriant album. It's the work of an artist who has taken time to figure out exactly what he wants to say, and found kindred spirits to share the journey.

Kelly isn't inclined to spell out the emotional specifics that led to the album's body of music, but he acknowledges the cohesive suite-like structure traces the emotional arc of a relationship, from the opening title track's sense of wondrous discovery to the sadder-but-wiser farewell, "All the Things You Were."

"I didn't write the tunes beginning to end with a narrative in mind, but together all of the pieces tell a story," says Kelly, who performs Saturday at Kuumbwa with tenor saxophonist Jonathan Bautista, bassist Lukas Vesely, and drummer Jemal Ramirez, the same band featured on the CD.

"It's supposed to be a journey and a story that unfolds with a beginning, a middle and end, a story of two forces meeting, and all of the transformations that happen on the way."

Jazz is the force that transformed Kelly's life, seizing his imagination and setting him on an educational odyssey that spanned more than a decade. After a childhood spent bouncing around the country because of his father's railroad job, he ended up attending UC Santa Cruz and earning a degree in philosophy.

Kelly spent his teen years playing electric guitar in rock bands. In Santa Cruz, he immersed himself in classical guitar after deciding to apply the same discipline to his musical pursuits as he had to academics.

An attack of tendinitis redirected his creative energy toward composing, which led him to Ray Brown's jazz theory course at Cabrillo College. Though long drawn to improvisation, he had little exposure to jazz, and Brown's class sparked an epiphany.

"He was such a great teacher," says Kelly, who has held down a regular Wednesday night gig at San Mateo's B Street & Vine for four years. "The way he presented jazz, once I was introduced, it took over my life."

He refined his sound and expanded his stylistic horizons at San Jose State, where he enrolled in the respected jazz program in 2001. Toward the end of his undergraduate studies, Kelly encountered Hristo Vitchev, an incoming student who was equally motivated. They both studied with veteran Palo Alto guitarist Rick Vandivier, and Portland, Ore.-based guitarist John Stowell, who came down for annual stints as a visiting clinician.

"Neil has his own thing," Vandivier says. "Without trying and overthinking it, he's developed his own way of playing and writing. Hristo and Neil both love the music and will go to any lengths to grow and progress."

While they performed widely around the South Bay as a guitar duo during their undergraduate years, Kelly and Vitchev's paths diverged after graduation.

Vitchev quickly became a rising creative force on the Bay Area scene, launching his own label and releasing several CDs featuring a quartet with Brazilian pianist Weber Iago focusing on the guitarist's intricate but spacious original compositions. Kelly returned to the San Jose State for a master's degree in composition, studying with baritone saxophonist Aaron Lington.

After being out of touch for several years, they ran into each other at a John Scofield performance at Yoshi's, which led to Vitchev releasing Kelly's "Rivers Converge" on his First Orbit Sounds label.

They perform with Vandivier, bassist Dan Robbins and drummer Jason Lewis on April 28 at Redwood City's Club Fox, the third annual jazz Guitarfest showcase organized by Vitchev and his former professor.

Kelly's primary creative vehicle is his quartet, a group that shares his love of fluid melodies and transparent textures.

In addition to his lyrical original pieces, he's developed a repertoire of underplayed jazz compositions, including some by Joe Henderson, Barney Kessel and Jim Hall, a seminal influence on Kelly's sound and concept.

A dedicated student of the modern jazz guitar tradition, he's investigated the instrument's foundational figures, from Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell to Herb Ellis, Tal Farlow and Joe Pass.

"There are so many different styles and nuances of jazz guitar," Kelly says. "Recently I've been getting into players who are more my contemporaries, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Lage Lund, Adam Rogers and Sheryl Bailey.

"For so long I was into exploring the history, I wasn't paying attention to the modern day. It's all so inspiring." - San Jose Mercury News

"Neil Kelly takes jazz in his own direction on 'Rivers Converge'"

Like many another guitarist, Neil Kelly came to jazz only after cutting his teeth in other genres, rock chief among them. What eventually won him over, the South Bay artist notes in the interview below, was the fact jazz “embraced improvisation and was sophisticated and musically advanced and challenging.”
And it is those qualities that define “Rivers Converge,” the new album from the quartet of Kelly, Jonathan Bautista (saxophone), Lukas Vesely (bass) and Jemal Ramirez (drums). Invigorating yet accessible, the group’s sound places nearly as much emphasis on Bautista’s sax as the leader’s guitar, giving both men the opportunity to display their chops as well as their collaborative talents.
Bay Area jazz fans have ample opportunity in the coming days to catch Kelly in action. There’s his regular Wednesday gig tonight and April 27 at B Street and Vine in San Mateo; Saturday’s CD release show at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz; and his participation in Guitarfest, set for April 28 at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City. This last teams Kelly with Hristo Vitchev and Rick Vandivier as well as the rhythm section of Dan Robbins (bass) and Jason Lewis (drums).
Here’s what Kelly told me about “Rivers Converge,” composing and more.

Question: I'm impressed by the deft interplay between you and Jonathan, in particular. How did you go about writing and arranging the material on "Rivers Converge"?
Kelly: The compositions on the record were chosen from a variety of tunes I had written while in the graduate program at San Jose State. Generally, I write either at the piano or on the guitar. Sometimes a melody or riff arises first and I work from there, providing harmony after. On “All the Things We Were,” I started with a concept of traveling through the changes of “All the Things You Are” backwards. Then from that rough road map, I used substitutions and created a melody from the chord changes.
My rule is to never try to make anything fit too much into a certain mold. If I have a guiding idea, that’s great, but if it forces me into things that just don’t sound good to me, I’ll take a different course. For the arranging of the pieces, I wanted to have the sax as my primary melody voice. I like this sound because there is no piano in the group, so the sax is my extra voice and creates a timbre that I like. In terms of the improvisation we had tunes and a series of events that were to happen in each chart and then we just let it take flight. So there were intros, endings and melodies to be played, an order of events, so to speak, but all the solo sections were pretty much open. So the project in general was about an equal blend of pre-planned and spontaneously emerged. For instance, I accidentally played a “wrong” or extra chord at the ending of the tune “Rivers Converge”. We ended up digging it and re-writing the arrangement.

Question: Composing clearly is a big part of what you do. What are the pleasures you derive from that discipline and how do they differ from those associated with performing?
Kelly: Composing is unique in that you can try to convey ideas and emotions in a thematic unity. Performing and improvising is always where the real music actually happens but with composing the entire structure is your own and I think it by default shows a deeper side of oneself and more adequately expresses what a musician is trying to convey in every playing situation. Also, I don’t have monster chops or anything so I thought the best way for me to give my gifts to the jazz world is through composition and creating tunes that say something no one else is saying, or ever will be able to say in the same way that I can.

Question: Your bio notes you lived on the East Coast and Chicago before coming West. How did you first come to embrace jazz guitar?
Kelly: My childhood years were scattered across many states. My father worked for the railroad and this resulted in many moves. In my junior year of high school, I moved to the westerns suburbs of Chicago. I graduated high school there, did a year of college and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1992 to go to school and never left.
I started playing guitar at age 13 in North Carolina and had a series of teachers for a couple of states, focusing first on rock and then briefly studying classical guitar in Jacksonville. When I moved to Chicago, I quit lessons and just played experimenting with rock and improvised psychedelic music for the next eight years. After finishing a degree in philosophy from Santa Cruz in 1996, I began studying classical guitar again with Guy Cantwell, who was the teacher at Cabrillo College. Originally for the purpose of deepening my compositional talents as a modern rock band leader, I started taking all the theory classes at Cabrillo. I took beginning jazz/pop theory with Ray Brown (arranger-trumpeter) and it was all over. He turned me onto jazz and I realized that what I had always been searching for was a form of music that embraced improvisation and was sophisticated and musically advanced and challenging. Jazz seemed the perfect synthesis of my rock/jam band side and the classical side.

Question: You're playing Guitarfest and it should be noted Northern California doesn't lack for great jazz guitarists. Who are your favorites among your colleagues?
Kelly: Bruce Forman, Mimi Fox, Julian Lage, Rick Vandivier, Hristo Vitchev, Terrence Brewer, John Stowell, Scott Sorkin, to name a few. - Oakland Examiner

"CD Reviews: Neil Kelly Quartet, “Rivers Converge”"

By: Edward Blanco
A part of the greater San Francisco Bay Area for the past ten years, guitarist and band leader Neil Kelly debuts his very first album with Rivers Converge, a friendly jazz outing showcasing Kelly's skills on the instrument as well as his talents as a composer. Offering eight tracks—all except one written by Kelly—of tastefully performed accessible straight ahead jazz, Rivers Converge succeeds in drawing the listener in with its straightforward approach and charm.

While an accomplished musician, Kelly's prowess as a composer are featured on the album as evidenced by “Threshold” and “All the Things We Were”—two original charts orchestrated for big bands, were top selections by the San Jose Jazz Society's Local Composer's Showcase for 2009 and 2010.

Joining Kelly for this quartet setting are tenor saxophonist Jonathan Bautista, bassist Lukas Vesely and drummer Jemal Ramirez—all like Kelly—well entrenched players in the South Bay Area modern jazz scene. The project begins with the lively title track featuring Kelly's handy work on the strings with an extended solo performance accompanied nicely by Bautista's sharp tenor phrases. Bassist Vesely struts his stuff on the following “Paradox in Blue” playing pick up to the guitar and tenor voices. The rearranged big band piece “Threshold,” presents the first light jazz number of the album with the group slowing the tempo down to almost a crawl, delivers a relaxing shuffle. The other light moment of the album comes from the only cover piece of the repertoire, the Youmi Kimura tune and finale piece “Itsu Mo Nando Demo.”

Other notable pieces worth more than one spin are, “The Raven in September,” “Leave of Absinthe,” “All the Things We Were” and “Trinity.” A superb first effort by guitarist Neil Kelly, Rivers Converge presents an enticing session of sophisticated modern jazz delivered by a first-rate quartet who compliment and encourage each other across 52 minutes of new music.

Year: 2010
Label: Delicate Coincidence Music/First Orbit Sounds
Artist Web:


"Neil Kelly - Rivers Converge"

Neil Kelly Quartet
Rivers Converge

Rivers Converge - Neil Kelly Quartet

The Neil Kelly Quartet, lead of course by guitarist Neil Kelly, has put together some very pleasant easy-on-the-ears instrumental jazz on Rivers Converge. Kelly has written and arranged music that falls stylistically somewhere between current smooth jazz and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. In spite of the use of some rather 'high jazz' techniques, such as asymmetric time on “Trinity” or the through composed melodies of the title track “Rivers Converge”, these tunes always maintain a nice mellow mood.

Bassist Lukas Vesely and drummer Jemal Ramirez do a fine job providing the back bone of the music. Actually, there's more than that to their playing. Ramirez's splashy style adds a unique texture to the overall sound of the album, and Vesely's infrequent solos always please. It is saxophonist Jonathon Bautista and Kelly himself, however, who really shine here. Bautista's playing is energetic but tasteful. He's not afraid to shred a little, like he does on “Trinity”, but he never goes so far as to overly challenge the listener. This is intentionally not 'sheets of sound' playing. The melody assumes a commanding tone when Kelly and Bautista play together on the same line. It's a great example of how the total can be greater than the sum of the parts. This is especially true on “Rivers Converge”, where the two musicians unify and then diverge and re-converge just like a couple of rivers running through the mountains. The highlight moment of the album, though, comes at the end rather than at the beginning. Though it is all good, nowhere else on this CD does Kelly play like he does at the top of “Itsu Mo Nando Demo”. He presents the theme with graceful ease, dripping with musicality. He owns it completely as if he had written it (the rest of the music on the album he did write, by the way).

For the newcomer to jazz music, Rivers Converge would be perfect for a mellow evening of easy listening by the fireside. There are no 'red' notes here. Yet, this music is also high quality and interesting enough to entertain long time jazzers. It's pleasant from the first note to the last, and will surely take it's place in the current repertoire as a good contribution.

Key Tracks – Rivers Converge, Trinity, Itsu Mo Nando Demo
Donny Harvey – Staff
November 29, 2010
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"CD REVIEW: Neil Kelly Quartet - Rivers Converge"

Neil Kelly Quartet's 'Rivers Converge' is a very good album. A beautiful album, beautifully played, impeccably recorded, full of wild, wonderful, rambling, exploratory tunes. It may even be great.

What makes an album great? First-you need interesting tunes, well arranged. Check. Kelly brings a clear, warm-toned sound to the title track and the other spirited and varied melodies. His playing is evocative of Wes Montgomery, Four on Six era, but the style is all his own-- packed with info, little arguments and asides, melodies and interjections, like a man arguing with himself, yet also full of beauty. And undeniably funky.

Second-- you've got to have the players. Check. Saxman Jonathan Bautista (typo on inside cover- can we proofread, people, puh-leeze??!!) is a stand-out, from the bright sunny playing on Trinity to the slow build of Threshold. It's hard to find a good soft tenor sax sound, other than that heavy, breathy, Ben Webster-type tone (which I love, btw), but Bautista brings something different, a deft touch and clear line to the melodies as well as his solos. A real find. The rest of the band is just as good. Jemal Ramirez is the excellent drummer, despite some overplaying (less is more on the lovely Paradox in Blue, my man!), from the up-tempo old school jazz groove of title tune to the light funky of Raven in September and the latin-inflected Leave of Absinthe. And bassist Lukas Vesely sounds great (a little hard to hear, though, light in the mix), especially his fly solo on Absinthe.

My only caveat...what is it about serious musicians that makes them want to look so, well, serious? The cover pictures the band in the woods. Gorgeous day, dappled sunlight streaming through the trees. Very California. And yet the band looks like they just escaped from prison, or are about to be attacked by goblins. Or both. Only Bautista manages a smile. Perhaps it's due to his fly headgear, an old style porkpie hat in subdued lavender. Mingus meets the Joker! But imagine you're an escaped con and you're being pursued by other-worldly creatures. Plus you just bit the head off a squirrel. And you don't even like squirrel. In fact, you hate squirrel. That's Neil in this picture. Lighten up! This is the best jazz album I've heard this year. Tunes are quirky and fun, and it feels like you had a ball making the record. It's not easy to make a jazz album that rocks, but I think that's what we have here. Complete with the heavy metal pose on the cover. Heavy metal jazz? Could be the next big thing. With Neil Kelly leading the charge. So Neil, buddy-- You made a great modern jazz album! Crack a smile! Feel the love! Smell the eucalyptus! Or go buy some chain mail!

- The Muse's Muse


Rivers Converge (2010)



Neil Kelly is a Jazz Guitarist / Composer / Arranger / and Band Leader who has been working in the greater San Francisco Bay area for the past 10 years. He holds a Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies from San Jose State University where he majored in Jazz composition and arranging. Neil’s original compositions “Threshold” and “All the Things We Were,” orchestrated for Big band, were selected compositions for the San Jose Jazz Society’s Composer’s Showcase of 2009 and 2010. He has played various venues across the bay area including Kuumbwa Jazz center, the Monterey Jazz Festival, Rasselas Jazz Club, and as a part of the San Jose Jazz Showcase series. His debut CD “Rivers Converge” features his compositional talents in a quartet setting. Accompanied by Jonathan Bautista (Tenor Saxophone), Lukas Vesely (Bass), and Jemal Ramirez (Drums) this record presents a promising new voice and vision in the San Francisco Bay Area Modern Jazz scene.

Lukas Vesely is an extremely talented and multi-faceted musician that released his first jazz album, Peace Prayer in 2005. This album is a mixture of styles ranging from traditional jazz to more contemporary forms of jazz featuring Lukas' very soulful jazz singing. Lukas is not only a multi-instrumentalist but is also a talented songwriter that draws his inspiration from various musical idioms including western classical music and Japanese folk music to name a few. He was born in the Czech Republic and came to America at the age of three. Lukas grew up listening to a lot of early jazz recordings that his father played for him, such as those of Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, and Bach. After high-school, Lukas received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music and went on to become a professional musician. He currently tours with his brother's rock group Secondhand Serenade and plays Jazz all over the bay area.He has studied and played with such musicians as Oscar Stagnaro, Alex Acuna, and Richard Stoltzman. His current album features Scott 'E Dog' Peterson (J.C.Heard, Aretha Franklin) and Jazz Sawyer(Irvin Mayfield, Abbey Lincoln).

Jonathan Bautista, bay area musician, teacher and composer, plays saxophone, clarinet, flute and piano. Classically trained on piano and saxophone, he earned his BA from San Jose State University School of Music and did graduate work at the Manhattan School of Music. He has studied with Melecio Magdaluyo, William Trimble, Paul Cohen and Bobby Watson. Performing since the age of 13, Jonathan has played clubs and concert halls all over the bay area, such as Kimbals, Great American Music Hall, Kuumbwa jazz Center and Davies Symphony Hall.

Jemal Ramirez is a S.F. bay area Drummer and percussionist. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Jemal has studied with Reggie Workman, Adam Nussbaum, Greg Hutchinson, Benny Green , Eric Reed, Akira Tana, Eddie Marshall, Andrew Speight, Bob Kenmotsu and John Callaway.
Jemal has worked professionally with Marcus Shelby, Joshua Redman, Mark Levine, Bob Kenmotsu, Eric Reed, Kenny Brooks, Andrew Speight, Dana Stephens, Howard Wiley and others.