Jazz Review: Grace Under Pressure

Saxophonist Grace Kelly has to decide what kind of artist she wants to be in her maturity, how long a run she’d like to have, how much she intends to contribute to the jazz tradition—and how she intends to accomplish these things.

By Steve Elman.

A moment of reckoning arrives in the career of every prodigy, from Shirley Temple to Midori to jazz talents of various stripes (examples include Eldar Djangirev, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Craig Hundley). It’s the moment when the “wow” ends and the audience begins to ask, “OK, what else ya got?”

Grace Kelly, who’s been justifiably praised and honored for her outstanding technique on alto sax since the release of her first CD at age 12, is now 18 and touring behind her newest release. In the next couple of years, after she graduates from Berklee, her youthful skill will no longer be a novelty, and she will have to endure a life transition in the glare of the spotlight.

So far, she’s handled the attention with admirable aplomb. She’s poised on stage, well-spoken, and charming. She dresses beautifully (aside: sexist rules still apply, even in jazz—women in showbiz must show off some personal glamour, while men can dress like they just came off a rugby pitch). She has put herself in challenging circumstances with master musicians and demonstrated that she can go toe-to-toe, even with people she considers mentors like Phil Woods and Lee Konitz.

But all that stuff is easy in comparison to the first important crossroads of her career, when she has to decide what kind of artist she wants to be in her maturity, how long a run she’d like to have, how much she intends to contribute to the jazz tradition—and how she intends to accomplish these things.

So, in assessing the second set at Scullers on January 21, along with her new release (The Man with the Hat, on her own Pazz label, to be released on January 25; available for pre-order from her website, $15 + shipping; at this date, online sources are not yet taking pre-orders), there is more to consider than just the music at hand.

And the music at hand was quite good. Phil Woods is guest artist on the CD, and he performed with Kelly at Scullers, though he will not be part of her upcoming European tour. Because of his presence and Kelly’s strong local following, the 10 p.m. Scullers show I saw was the second of two sellouts.

Grace Kelly -- at the age of 18 she has demonstrated that she can go toe-to-toe, even with people she considers mentors, like Phil Woods and Lee Konitz.

Kelly’s saxophone work was assured and graceful (pun intended), and Woods, although hampered by emphysema as he pushes 80, showed his superlative technique and artistic authority in every solo.

In support of the two saxophonists, Kelly had her outstanding working band. Trumpeter Jason Palmer was a delight; pianist Doug Johnson showed off impressive chops and plenty of harmonic ingenuity; Jordan Perlson was admirably reliable drumming in every tempo. And bassist Evan Gregor deserves special praise for his beautiful tone and secure pitch, even in the highest register.

The CD, with slightly different personnel, offers a good deal of enjoyable music—and one profoundly beautiful track where Kelly duets with Gregor on “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Woods’s solo on Billy Strayhorn’s “Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus-Eaters” is definitive. Kelly’s original verse for “The Way You Look Tonight” is snappy and well-written, and her tune dedicated to Woods, “Man with the Hat,” is a solid piece of craft.

Bill Goodwin, Woods’s long-time drummer, is an ideal man for the percussion job. If the release lacks a certain spark, I have to put some blame on pianist Monty Alexander. He has always impressed me as a competent pianist and compere, but his solos usually seem collections of gestures without much unity—here some tremolo, there some block chords in homage to Erroll Garner, a hint of his own Caribbean background—but I miss a sense of story. And, unfortunately, his work here is not an exception.

Kelly’s saxophone style, on CD and in person, deserves a full graf. She has already done some very important things artistically, which are on display in the CD and were out front in concert as well. First, she has defined the territory she wants to explore, which might be described as mainstream jazz repertoire, that is, American popular songs, old and new, classic jazz compositions, and bebop with its six decades of permutations. Second, within that framework, she has developed a personal language with some very attractive distinctions—a feather-light approach to arpeggios that gives even her fast work softness and romance and an ability to shade notes and convey hints of melancholy without twisting the pitch out of shape. (Her upper-register stuff recalls Konitz and Paul Desmond as opposed to more baroque colorists like Jackie McLean and Art Pepper.)

If her playing on the CD and in performance was not exactly cast-your-fate-to-the-wind ecstatic, she was sharing the platform with Phil Woods, and that could intimidate anyone a bit. It’s worth noting that her finest work of the night was in her encore, a duet with Gregor on “’Round Midnight” that covered saxophone territory from Johnny Hodges to Ornette Coleman.

But then we have the singing. On her website, I read this with some concern: “Without hesitation, Grace Kelly will tell you that her goal is ‘to stay in jazz but also do different things, bigger arrangements, like Stevie Wonder and George Benson.’”

Grace Kelly hasn’t asked for my advice, but here it is anyway: stop singing until you study this craft and learn to do it well.

In my view, George Benson’s greatest artistic mistake was his decision to sing; he exchanged a substantial income and a couple of hit records for a pall cast over all of his fine instrumental work. If Kelly thinks this is a good example, I would urge her to think again, unless her true goals are that steady bread and the elixir of uninformed applause.

If this be elitism, let me make the most of it. The number of musicians who are truly great as both singers and instrumentalists is dauntingly small. If Kelly had cited Nat Cole or Shirley Horn on her website as paradigms, she’d be aiming as high as she ought to. But her vocal efforts so far show how much work she needs to do to be credible as a singer and to earn her listeners’ trust as an interpreter of song.

Yes, her pitch is secure, and that is a great blessing. But she needs a bigger column of air under her voice to project lyrics well, and she needs to develop a sense of drama to give her words real meaning. Otherwise, all she’s doing is giving the audience a stylistic break. This is something listeners might well enjoy in the moment, but it does nothing to advance her as an artist.

She performed the same vocal tunes at Scullers that are featured on her new CD, and neither justified inclusion in either context.

“Gone,” a tune she co-wrote with David L. Greenberg, is a pleasant enough bossa ditty, but it’s marred on the CD by Alexander’s melodica playing and in performance by Jason Palmer’s whistling. Why not have Palmer play the unisons off-mic on muted trumpet to give the tune some weight?

“People Time,” a Benny Carter tune with lyrics by Deborah Pearl, is just baffling. Benny’s melody is lovely, as his melodies always are, but Pearl’s lyric (printed for us to ponder at length in the liner notes to the CD) hasn’t a single memorable rhyme or beautiful image. (Example: “Like the scent of spring you linger on / Angels have no wings without your song”). I have no doubt that these sentiments of mourning for a deceased lover are heartfelt, but it would take a masterful singer to invest this text with meaning, and Kelly just isn’t up to it.

Grace Kelly hasn’t asked for my advice, but here it is anyway: stop singing until you study this craft and learn to do it well. Concentrate on taking your saxophone playing and tune interpretation to the next level by digging deeply into the work of great jazz composers who will push you harmonically and structurally—Tadd Dameron, Herbie Nichols, Wayne Shorter, Carla Bley.

And forge ahead, no matter what anyone says. Myself included.

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