Music Preview: Saxophonist Grace Kelly — On Jazz and Beyond
“My hope is that in the near future the mainstream music pendulum will swing much more heavily towards giving jazz the attention it deserves.”
By Matt Hanson
Alto saxophonist Grace Kelly, 24, is making quite a name for herself in the contemporary jazz scene. The Brookline native has been playing professionally since the age of 12 and graduated from Berklee College of Music at 19. Her original compositions have been performed by the Boston Pops, and she has collaborated with a venerable roster of jazz masters, including Dave Brubeck, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, and Frank Morgan. Grace Kelly (yes, that’s her real name) is also a regular guest with Jon Batiste and Stay Human, house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Kelly’s playing combines a love and knowledge of jazz standards with a distinctly youthful, contemporary sensibility. Vanity Fair recently cited Kelly among “These Millennials Shaking Up the Jazz World.” Returning to her old stomping grounds this Sunday at the Berklee Performance Center, she will be joined by special guest David Sanborn. The Arts Fuse caught up with her in between concerts promoting Trying to Figure It Out, her tenth studio effort
Arts Fuse: Were you always into jazz or did you come to it later?
Grace Kelly: My parents played an eclectic mix of music when I was growing up. Music was always on, never the TV. I was actually a huge Broadway fan back in my early days and at the age of 6, I was singing, acting and dancing. However, the one jazz artist my parents played a lot of was Stan Getz. He’s the reason I fell in love with the saxophone. I use to sing along to Stan Getz solos around the house and from an early age I always knew I wanted to play the saxophone. I also listened to a lot Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald- my family listened to our local jazz radio station in Brookline pretty religiously and it played a wide variety of jazz. I would say that I was very much aware and listening to jazz from my early days but it wasn’t until I was about 10 years old and studying with my first saxophone teacher that I became deeply immersed in it.
AF: Who was your first musical obsession?
Kelly: My first musical obsession was the Broadway actress Sutton Foster back in 2002. She was the lead in the Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was so in love with her and knew every song in that show by heart. My first great jazz obsession was Stan Getz on the tenor sax, and then Paul Desmond on the alto.
AF: As a jazz fan, I’ve been wondering lately when jazz was going to have a comeback in terms of mainstream attention. Do you see that happening at all?
Kelly: I do see it happening, in small bits, and my hope is that in the near future the mainstream music pendulum will swing much more heavily towards giving jazz the attention it deserves. A lot of people don’t realize that some of our biggest pop stars, people like Amy Winehouse, Adele, Maroon 5, and Imagine Dragons have all had training in jazz. Amy Winehouse recorded jazz standards on an earlier album of hers. In that sense, I do feel like you hear about jazz being a big influence on many artists who shape it in their own way.
There’s a really exciting thing happening in the jazz world today — we younger players are taking our training in the roots of traditional jazz and merging it with their other musical inspirations, whether they be R+B, hip hop, world music, fusion, etc. Groups like Snarky Puppy, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, Trombone Shorty and so many more, are really making a pathway for young jazz musicians to embrace what makes them a unique musician in the world of 2016. It’s something I very much feel a responsibility to help spearhead as we move forward in this music and something that artistically really speaks to me. I call it “jazz and beyond.”
AF: So tell me a little bit about the legendary Frank Morgan. He was something of a mentor to you, wasn’t he?
Kelly: Frank Morgan is one of my all time favorite alto saxophonists! He has so much soul, depth, and emotion that whenever I hear him on a recording it’s as if he’s singing specifically to me. You can hear his life story in his sound and in the notes he chooses. I was so fortunate to get to know Frank very well in the last two years of his life. His pianist George Cables had told Frank about me and one night in Boston Frank invited me to sit in with the band. The next day he called me up and wanted to me to travel and play with him in Milwaukee at the Pabst Theater and later he wanted me to play 10 sets with him at the Jazz Standard in NY. All of this was so surreal for me since he’s someone I grew up listening to and all of a sudden we had this beautiful relationship playing together. We used to talk on the phone everyday. At one point we decided we were going to “adopt” each other and he was my “Grandpa Frank” and I was his “Granddaughter.”
We connected very deeply musically but also on a personal level. I loved him so much and miss him all the time but I always feel his guidance around me and feel grateful to have his music. There is also a beautiful documentary made about him that I’m in called Sound of Redemption, which was produced by author Michael Connelly. It tells the story of Frank’s life, including the 30 years he spent in and out of San Quentin Prison due to drugs. By the time we met, Frank had truly found redemption and for him at that point in his life it was definitely all about the music.
AF: You’ve covered many jazz standards, written a soundtrack for a TV series, and sung original material. Is there a particular style you enjoy playing the most? Or one you that look forward to taking on in the future?
Kelly: I love wearing different musical hats. It keeps me sharp and I get bored if I do only one thing for long period of time. Playing in different musical settings with different people, music, styles, and collaborations is what helps me grow to become a better musician. Obviously jazz and bebop are important to me but I also have a deep love for just wailing the blues and playing rock n’ roll. It’s a different bag of tools: I have to focus a lot more on sound, rhythm, emotion and sometimes I just need to wail up in the top register. For the future, I’d love to explore Brazilian music some more. I have a deep love for it, especially since I grew up to records by Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. It would be great to get to learn all the nuances of the language, too.
AF: What is some of your favorite material to play live?
Kelly: It changes daily! One of my favorite things to do is “Grace-ify” current pop songs that I love. We play Sia’s “Chandelier” in my set sometimes and I recorded and sang Coldplay’s, “Magic” on my latest CD. When working with covers I always want to put my own spin on it. It’s fun to watch people in the audience light up when they hear a song they know and then they get to hear a different spin on it. There’s also nothing like rocking out with an incredible audience. My band and I get pretty funky at times and I get the crowd on their feet while I get really loose and wail on the sax. It’s great fun.
AF: Do you happen to have a favorite Grace Kelly film?
Kelly: Yes I definitely do! I love Grace Kelly. I’ve adored her ever since I was a little girl. I especially love a movie of hers called High Society. Louis Armstrong is in it. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.