Jazz CD Review: The Kelly Green Trio — Flexing Musical Muscles
By Steve Provizer
Kelly Green and her trio are essentially mainstream players, but they explore a lot of challenging territory within that framework.
Volume One, Kelly Green Trio
Volume One is the first album release for vocalist and pianist Kelly Green as a trio with Alex Tremblay on bass and Evan Hyde on drums. They maintain a high level of group communication throughout this superb recording.
The trio takes an unorthodox approach to the Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer standard “I’m Old Fashioned.” The song begins with bowed bass and piano; Green’s sung tag to the intro are the words at the end of the song. After this brief vocal, piano returns to a vamp which previews the changes the group has made to the tune’s harmony. The trio moves into the body of the performance in a medium tempo, building in some rhythmic changes that are well-synched. Green’s approach is to sing one section of the song, play a brief instrumental interlude, and then continue to the next section. Once the entire chorus is done, she solos on piano.
Although various influences are present in her playing, Green has developed a distinctive voice. She makes use of various pianistic techniques, but it seems to me she is predominantly interested in melody. Tremblay solos well on bass and the vocal returns. Green’s vocal approach is a pleasing combination of the “singerly” and the declamatory. This strategy enables her to highlight some of the lyrics, lines that she then often echoes with emphasis on the piano. This performance is an unusual yet convincing interpretation of a much-performed song.
“I Wish I knew” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon was covered by vocal stars in the ’40s; it continues to be performed by jazz musicians. I would argue that Green’s version hearkens to the Coltrane interpretation on his 1963 Ballads recording. She performs the verse; for me, that is always a point in a musician’s favor. Green draws on different timbres of her voice here: a shade of Blossom Dearie here, a shade of Carmen McCrae there. After a chorus, she doubles the tempo and takes a more strictly instrumental approach, playing with the time and the melody. Her solo here takes a spacious direction, a la Ahmad Jamal. It builds in intensity and chills again as it leads into Tremblay’s bass solo. His solo often alludes to the melody, providing graceful embellishments. Green then trades “4’s” with Hyde’s drums. They are clearly comfortable with each other’s playing and listen carefully to each other. Vocal comes back in, toying with the melody for a chorus and halving the time before it goes back to the original ballad tempo. Green flexes her vocal muscles with just her piano for accompaniment, ending with an impassioned tag.
“Daily Lies” is a Green original. Piano sets up a complicated ostinato intro with shimmering drums and then moves into medium tempo for the tune. The lyrics are obliquely political, set to a melody that moves between major and minor: “Tell me that you have learned your lesson now, but not unless it’s the truth. I don’t know why you tell those daily lies, seems like it don’t bother you.” The bridge sets up a clear contrast in tonality, rhythm, and lyrics: “Yesterday seems like a dream come true to every boy and girl. How can we safely redeem our world and save our Mother Earth?” Green’s piano solo takes a dramatic turn here, definitely McCoy Tyner-influenced, with heavy pedal tones and tremolos. An extended Hyde drum solo is restrained, keeping to the dark, even paranoid, quality of the tune. The piano ostinato brings us back to a restatement of the melody and an ending that seems almost cut off. It works.
“My Ideal” by Leo Robin, Richard A. Whiting, and Newell Chase dates back to 1930. Green treats it as a very slow ballad — piano alone. Her vocal approach is understated, even somewhat wistful, and her piano accompaniment is deft, making the most of the song’s harmonic structure.
“The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” comes from the jazz-oriented side of Joni Mitchell. It’s a comedic, scat-type tune, albeit with a critical-cultural edge. Nice bass solo here from Tremblay and deft brushwork on drums. Green does a fine job with the vocal. She doesn’t stray too far from Mitchell’s approach — except there’s more full-bore scatting.
Maybel Wayne and Kim Gannon’s “I Understand” is a torcher. The song lyrically fits into the mold of “Don’t Explain.” The sentiment is not so much about masochistically accepting abuse, but about trying to deal with someone whose affections have cooled. There may be times when Green’s elaborations on the melody detract, but by and large, she reaches way down and successfully draws on the emotional depths of the song.
The group saves the bopper for the end. The number combines the Charlie Parker tune “Marmaduke” with the song whose harmony it is based on — Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” I’m assuming that Green wrote these lyrics for “Marmaduke.” Piano starts out stating the melody to “Marmaduke” in octaves and then, teamed with the bass, goes into “Honeysuckle Rose”. Green takes the melody pretty straight and then goes into her piano solo, which demonstrates that she deeply understands the tune’s harmony. Bass solos, and then piano does 4’s with the drummer. “Marmaduke” comes back and then comes Green’s strutting piano take on “Honeysuckle,” which is joined by her vocal.
Green and her trio are essentially mainstream players, but they explore a lot of challenging territory within that framework, moving with ease from torch songs and revamps of standards to originals and bop. Green has real piano chops and, as a singer, she is impressively restless, exploring various corners of her vocal equipment — and emotional palette — to create a compelling vocal style.
Steve Provizer is a brass player and bandleader who has been blogging about jazz for 15 years and written about the music for many publications.