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The Modest Prodigy

Nineteen-year-old Noah Kellman speaks slowly and thoughtfully, pondering each interview question for the most honest response. He sounds nothing like I thought he would — like a stereotypical teenage prodigy with a chip on his shoulder and very little time for me.

But Kellman, a Fayetteville native and a 2009 graduate of Manlius Pebble High School, is not your stereotypical teenage prodigy. Ten years’ worth of awards and performance invitations, both domestic and international, testify to his status as one of the nation’s most successful young jazz musicians. In February, his original song “The Piemaker” earned a Young Jazz Composer Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and

Publishers. Before that, he played piano at the 2009 Grammy Awards with the Grammy Jazz Ensemble and won another ASCAP award for his song “Get Lost.” But Kellman doesn’t count his accolades. Truth is, the sophomore jazz studies major at SUNY Purchase could teach Beethoven a lesson in humility.

Lanky and dark-eyed, with a wide smile and endearing stare, Kellman resists bragging about his accomplishments. When I throw out phrases like “piano prodigy” and “big man on campus,” he responds with nervous chuckles and modest affirmations. His confidence is quiet, but it’s there.

“Noah has been musical since I was pregnant with him,” jokes his mother, Jessie Kellman, “It was his choice completely to become musically active.” She recalls the day when a 3-year-old Noah asked her for violin lessons from his car seat. “He kept pursuing the idea of lessons until I found him a violin teacher. The teacher I found really didn’t want to take him on because she thought he was too young, but he did fine,” she says.

Kellman picked up the piano in kindergarten when his father taught him to recognize notes and play them back by ear. But he struggled to read music and the songs bored him, so Kellman quit the piano until he joined his school’s jazz band at age ten. Today, he can’t imagine living without it. “On an emotional level, I depend on music,” he admits.

That dependence comes through in Kellman’s compositions. His skill lies in his ability to bend the concept of jazz piano, using octave-breeching flourishes and calming melodies to push the genre. The piano line in “The Piemaker” jaunts along behind trumpet and sax before swinging into a solo; on “Get Lost,” Kellman’s piano melody dances around a shuffling cymbal ride.

Even when he plays the standards, Kellman plays with his whole body. In a video from Jazz in the Square, where Kellman and his friend Greg Chaplin performed in 2008, he dances slightly to the plucky swing beat of Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” bobbing and shaking his head to the music. Piano dominates the six-minute song.

But when the number ends to riotous applause, Kellman shrugs,pushes his glasses up his nose, and hunches over the mic. “Greg Chaplin on bass,” he says. Then he rearranges his music while Chaplin takes a bow.