As Grace Kelly defiantly reminds us
on The Other One, a standout number from her upcoming
Album, Trying To Figure It Out, she’s
not looking to be like anyone else. “Got my own thing,” she sings over the
song’s urban, trance-like groove. Although the singer and saxophone player has
been acclaimed by critics and audiences alike as a jazz musician, the track’s
exhilarating chorus, haunting keyboard hook and brittle electro edge show an
artist interested only in playing what she loves labels be damned.
While a current Kelly concert might
delight jazz purists with Great American Songbook standards, it could just as
easily inspire mainstream listeners with Gracei-fied takes on the likes of Daft
Punk’s Get Lucky, Coldplay’s Magic or Sia’s Chandelier.
But whatever the style, the
23-year-old seven-time winner of the Downbeat critics poll (as a rising star in
the alto sax category) spices up the sound with the lyrical and soulful phrasing
of her instrument. Kelly, who guested with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra
as part of the events surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration celebration at the
request of the ensemble’s director, Wynton Marsalis - remains as committed to
superior playing as ever.
For Kelly, evolution is part of the
jazz artist’s credo.
"I'm a very strong believer that jazz
is about improvisation and about creating and spontaneity," Kelly once said in
an interview. "That's what really drew me to it, but I think there's plenty of
music that can fuse elements of jazz with its own type of sound whether it's
rock or pop. I'm not into 'No, this isn't jazz.' I like everything that's good
and I encourage people to think that way."
Kelly says she has been well served
by applying those same jazz concepts to the personal demands of everyday life.
“I really take the concept of improvisation and spontaneity in the music, and I
live it,” she said.
That personal readiness for anything
accounts, in part, for the open-spirited nature of her art. “I try to say yes as
much as possible,” Kelly says. “If you have a closed idea of what you want in
your head, and it’s only going to go this way from - A to B to C - you miss a
lot of other things that could be popping up. And because you have such a small
mind frame, you won’t be able to see those great opportunities.”
Drawn to jazz by melodic players like
Stan Getz and Paul Desmond, Kelly also found in the music a freedom to express
herself that she had not found in her classical piano lessons. Née Grace
Chung in Wellesley, Mass., in 1992, Kelly started taking clarinet lessons in
Grade 4 but quickly switched to alto sax at the age of 10. She was soon
transcribing Miles Davis pieces.
Kelly recorded her first album,
Dreaming, when she was 12. Even on that debut release, the music pointed to her
future eclecticism by mixing the pure pop of On My Way Home with selections like
the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love, a medley of Blue Skies and In Walked Bud and the
self composed odd-meter jazz instrumental G-Bop.
“My way has always been a mix of
music I’ve listened to and loved, including jazz, pop and blues,” Kelly says.
“Even when I made that first album, I was a total Broadway kid, so some of that
even creeps in.”
Times Too (2005) was an ambitious
double disc that mostly paid homage to jazz standards on its first half and
explored classic Beatles and Stevie Wonder, along with some innocent and catchy
originals, on its second. Every Road I Walked (2006) followed, further refining
Kelly’s ability to blend genres. Self-penned tracks like Filosophical Flying
Fish, with its second-line groove, and the easily accessible charmer Finish Line
sounded quite at home with a sweet and sensitive reading of Somewhere Over the
Rainbow, a winning excursion into bossa nova with Samba de Verao and a lightly
Kelly, 14 at the time of the album’s
release, received the first of her ASCAP Foundation awards for the title track
and was invited to perform with the Boston Pops. For the occasion, she wrote her
first full orchestral arrangement, adapting the award winning piece.
Lee Konitz, the influential composer
and alto sax player, who had been Kelly’s teacher and mentor since she was 13,
became her collaborator on the 2008 release GRACEfulLEE, which featured the two
stretching out with a stellar band made up of guitarist Russell Malone, bassist
Rufus Reid and drummer Matt Wilson. An almost 10minute take on Konitz’s Thingin’,
the stately, jointly-composed title track and taut, unaccompanied improvised
miniatures like Alone Together and Buzzing Around were among the highlights. The
album was a critical triumph as well, drawing a 4-and-½-star review in the jazz
bible Downbeat, an endorsement that later earned it a spot in the magazine’s
Best Albums of the 2000s issue. “Her duet with Malone on Just Friends is
stunning in its simplicity and feeling how can a teenager communicate this depth
of expression?,” the publication’s Michael Jackson wrote in his appraisal.
Mood Changes, released in 2009, found
Kelly playing tenor, alto and soprano sax on her most Self-assured work to that
point. The bouncy, swinging Happy Theme Song set a celebratory, searching tone
best showcased in smart, inventive arrangements of Comes Love, Ain’t No Sunshine
and I Want To Be Happy.
A second auspicious studio
collaboration followed when another alto sax legend, Phil Woods, 80 at the time,
teamed up with Kelly, then 18, for The Man With the Hat (2011), which also
brought a tour to promote the album. Master and protegée traded ideas on four of
the disc’s seven performances, including the swinging title track and a stunning
reading of Billy Strayhorn’s Ballad For Very Sad and Very Tired Lotus Eaters.
jammed together through I'll Remember April,” Woods said of his first musical
Kelly. “How did she sound? I gave her my hat! That is how good she sounded! She
is the first alto player to get one.
Hooray for the future of jazz and the alto sax!"
Kelly added to her musical pallette
later that year by releasing the reflective jazz-gospel set Grace, most of which
featured her and inspirational jazz pianist George Russell Jr. putting their own
stamp on traditional spirituals, without further accompaniment. Among the few
exceptions, Kelly’s melodic overdubbed solo piece Grace Alone and a joyous,
infectious Let There Be Peace on Earth with percussionist Jamey Haddad from Paul
Simon’s band were every bit as satisfying.
By then, the music sounded as if it
were coming from a deeper place.
“I really believe in universal
energy and vibrational energy, and I think music comes from that place,” Kelly
says. “So it would be safe to say that music is my religion.”
Kelly also graduated from the
Berklee College of Music in 2011, with a degree in professional music. She has
taught residency workshops there since 2012. That year also brought another
important opportunity to pass on her musical knowledge: the U.S. State Department sent her on an international speakers
tour to be an ambassador of jazz and educate the people of Madagascar
and the Comoros Islands about the music.
“The folks in the Comoros Islands
had never heard of legends like Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis,” Kelly said. “It
was a challenging and exciting task.”
The dynamic 2013 Live at Scullers
disc offered a country-flavoured original, Kiss Away Your Tears, among other
self-penned performances and a couple of jazz standards. The 2014 EP Working
For the Dreamers featured gems like the urban, soft R&B of Touched By An Angel
and the pulsating electro beat of Cold
Cold Water, keeping the momentum of change in the foreground of
Kelly’s creative agenda.
Trying To Figure It Out, due in
February 2016, finds Kelly once again following her restless artistic spirit.
The new work explores, in her words, “the world of jazz and beyond.” Fittingly,
the album’s musical setting shifts from acoustic, conventional jazz (as typified
by her touching version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a live favourite) to a
genre-bending approach, with more contemporary production values.
Blues For Harry Bosch perfectly
illustrates the concept, appearing in two versions - as a retro-jazz piece with
a film nour-ish feel and as a thoroughly contemporary remix with a clubby trance
groove. The track was written for the Emmy-nominated Amazon Prime series Bosch,
in which Kelly will appear when the jazz-loving title character, an L.A.
homicide detective, stops into Catalina’s Jazz Club in Hollywood to see her
perform during the show’s second season.
Artists ranging from Randy Brecker
to Huey Lewis have praised Kelly. Jazz and mainstream media including Jazz
Times, All About Jazz, the L.A. Times and CNN have raved about her music.
Headlining sets at all major jazz festivals, from Montreux to Newport to
Montreal, have drawn more fans with each year. Awards continue to come. But
Kelly says she has never lost sight of a larger picture.
“I think everybody comes to life with a calling,” Kelly says. “I’ve been super
blessed that my calling in life has been music and that I found it from an early
age. But what I really hope my music brings to people is healing. There’s
nothing that makes me feel better than when somebody, after a show, says `You
lifted me up.’” Is it the main reason she plays? Her response comes without
hesitation: “It’s the only reason.”