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A 'Melange' of jazz, classical — and life

A 'Melange' of jazz, classical — and life
Karin Kelleher, violinist, and Mike Kelleher, composer/vocalist (Karen Elliott Greisdorf)

W.C. Handy's bluesy "Chantez Les Bas" segues, somehow, into the slow movement from Brahms' Violin Concerto. Debussy's "Clair de Lune," lushly transformed by a string quartet, a subtle drummer and a man sweetly singing about masks and moonlight, conjures up images of an unusually sophisticated nightclub.

And a melody from Bach's monumental Mass in B Minor finds unexpected common ground with a recent piece by contemporary jazz bassist Dave Holland and the traditional tune "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

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These are just a few examples of the genre-fusion heard in "Melange," a new album by Maryland-based composer/vocalist/arranger Mike Kelleher and his wife, violinist Karin Kelleher. The couple, joined by some of the players on the recording, will give a CD release concert Thursday at An die Musik. Another launch will be held next month at Blues Alley in Washington.

"I will probably be accused of sacrilege," Mike Kelleher says, "but I try to be true to the spirit of the [classical pieces]. I smushed W.C. Handy and Brahms together because I thought they would appeal to each other. I really love experimentation. Debussy, he lends himself so well to jazz. And I can totally see Bach in a jazz club."

In "Melange," the blending of musical styles gets an extra layer from Kelleher's velvety vocals (he's the lyricist on several tracks). His life is something of a melange, too.

The Illinois-born Kelleher is a Peace Corps veteran who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000, the same year he met another unsuccessful congressional candidate in Illinois named Barack Obama.

The two helped each other in subsequent races. Kelleher lost his (a bid for Illinois lieutenant governor), but Obama won his race for U.S. Senate in 2004. Kelleher was hired to work as the new senator's director of outreach and economic development.

After Obama was elected president, Kelleher joined the White House staff in January 2009 as director of correspondence. Out of thousands of letters and emails that arrived daily, he would select 10 for the president to read.

"People wrote so personally to him," Kelleher, 54, says. "It's a big responsibility to make sure they get the attention they deserve. I took that responsibility very seriously. We treated everyone carefully."

He left the White House in 2010 for the World Bank Group, where he is a lead international affairs officer.

In addition to his various day jobs, Kelleher has always kept a hand, and a voice, in music. During his college days at Illinois State University, he started as a music major. He met his future wife in music theory class.

"We sat across the room from each other," Karin Kelleher, 53, says. "And I played in a string quartet for a concert he gave of Beatles songs he had arranged. Fifteen years later, we got married."

The Kellehers live in Chevy Chase with their three daughters.

"Once I married Mike, we would sit in the living room and play through things," Karin Kelleher says. "He always leaned more to jazz. I've always been mostly classical. He taught me about jazz — the structure, improvisation. ['Melange'] was a natural extension of our messing around with stuff together."

Karin Kelleher, who plays in the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles around the region, advised her husband on the string arrangements for the CD and helped to round up other classical players from the area for the recording session.

"I'm open to a lot of other styles," she says, "so for me it's pretty natural to do this. Mike would ask what piece I really love. I've played the Bach Partita [No. 2 in D minor] forever and really love it. And I love the Brahms concerto."

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Both works inspired tracks on an album.

"I just filled out harmonies that Bach has right there in the arpeggios," Mike Kelleher says. "I'm still learning. I really love experimentation."

The album gains much of its flavor from the sophisticated percussion work of Joe McCarthy, director of the D.C.-based, Latin Grammy Award-winning Afro Bop Alliance, as well as from Kelleher's vocal styling on such numbers the Beatles' "Something" and the folk song "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair."

"I heard him singing at home and said, 'You should sing more, even if just for the kids.' I kind of encouraged him," Karin Kelleher says.

Mike Kelleher, who cites Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Mel Torme, Aaron Copland and Rachmaninoff among his musical influences, is already gathering items for another album. And he has prepared a song especially for Thursday's concert at An die Musik, taking note of the fact that the venue is named for a famous song by Schubert.

Meanwhile, there's still the World Bank job. But he's used to balancing careers and interests.

"Being in music makes me better at my job, helps me think more creatively," Kelleher says. "One helps the other. And your life experiences can pour into the music."

If you go

Composer/vocalist Mike Kelleher, violinist Karin Kelleher and ensemble perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at An die Musik, 409 North Charles St. Tickets are $10 to $18. Call 410-385-2638, or go to andiemusiklive.com.

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