Friday, September 19, 2014

Indy Jazz Fest presents a saxophonist-singer without borders: Grace Kelly comfortably straddles the pop-jazz divide

The first set by the Grace Kelly Quintet in its Indianapolis debut was spectacular, but after a brief intermission, the group leaned heavily on the rapport it had unmistakably built up at Apparatus, 1401 N. Meridian St. The Indy Jazz Fest made a shrewd move toward the youth market by booking this prodigious musician.

Grace Kelly and her music show signs of future stardom.
The 22-year-old musician who leads the ensemble was quick to connect with the audience both musically and in remarks from the stage. She's a charmer, no doubt about it. In a program composed largely of originals, Kelly leaned heavily on her vocals.

She's got a distinctive voice, I believe, though I'm not an authority on current pop vocalism. Her style is compounded of singer-songwriter intimacy, some pop-diva belting and a country-music heartbreak earnestness that pulls a few tricks off the yodeling shelf.

On the alto sax, she has drawn upon the r&b heartiness of Hank Crawford and David Sanborn as well as the mainstream, blues-inflected lyricism of Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley. In opening with a standard, "The Way You Look Tonight," Kelly presented her instrumental credentials. Every time she applied herself to the horn, she went all-out. She was articulate and adventurous in all registers, including way down low in a range not often exploited by jazz altoists.

She often had stories to tell behind her songs. For one who has accomplished so much in so little time, she turns readily to disarming defensiveness ("Please Don't Box Me In") and salutes to mentors ("Touched By an Angel") to introduce herself to listeners. If another artist's style suits her, she is prepared to  "Gracify" (her term) anything that appeals to her receptive muse. The arrangement of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" was a particularly successful adaptation for her sax-guitar-bass-trumpet-drums ensemble.

Kelly is both up-to-the-minute and deeply rooted.  She knew how to make "'Round Midnight" sing of nocturnal longings in her own way, with the band pared down to sax and guitar (played by the protean Pete McCann). Throughout, the guitarist was virtually a front-line player, flanking Kelly on one side with the trumpeter on the other. About him there's not much to say, given his splintery sound and tendency to be most effective only when muted.

The second set was more pop-oriented, despite the show-closing "Summertime," which was marred by a hyperactive arrangement. Original songs like "Cold, Cold Water" and "Eggshells" (with backup vocals) indicated that Kelly's gold embossed calling card to the wider world is just as likely to be her singing as her saxophone-playing. It's hard to imagine her leaving the instrument behind, but she does live in California now, and one thinks back to the precedent of Nat King Cole.

A pioneer of the drumless jazz piano trio, Cole allowed his career to become wholly absorbed in singing, and why not? That way lay fame, fortune and being the first black man to host a network television show.  Jazz fans were aware that his piano chops were a matter of record. But show business tends to tweak careers in the direction of commercial success.

Will music-lovers 10 or 15 years from now get in conversations like "Oh, yeah -- Grace Kelly, man, she used to be quite a saxophone player!"  "Really? With that voice and those songs? Easy to see why she gave up the horn."

What a vision, particularly given the touches of Nashville in her voice! Can we someday expect to see a Kelly vocal backed by liquescent strings and crooning chorus?  Do we have the Kelly equivalent of "Ramblin' Rose" to look forward to?