When it comes to saxophonist, vocalist, composer, lyricist, and arranger Grace Kelly, people seem to be divided into two groups: those who marvel at her proficiency, creativity, and ever-accelerating growth, and those who have yet to encounter the 18-year-old wunderkind. The ranks of the former are growing by the day. Trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Wynton Marsalis was so impressed with Kelly's three-night stand as guest of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in November that he invited her to join the ensemble at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C. for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day/Inauguration Eve concert. Harry Connick Jr. heard Kelly in a master class on a December afternoon and brought her on stage to sit in with his band that night. This capped an already exceptional end of 2008 in which Kelly's appearance on NPR's Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland was syndicated nationally, the Boston Music Awards declared her the city's Outstanding Jazz Act, and local ABC affiliate WCVB-TV named her one of five Bostonians to Watch in 2009. The 2009 Downbeat Critics Poll added to her list, naming her one of the Alto Saxophone Rising Stars, the youngest ever to be named so. She has numerous other awards to her credit.
To this astonishing list of kudos and credits, Kelly now adds Mood Changes, the fifth release on her PAZZ label. The album mixes six standards with four Kelly originals and features her working quintet (Jason Palmer, trumpet; Doug Johnson, piano; John Lockwood, basses; Jordan Perlson or Terri Lyne Carrington, drums), with guest appearances by guitarist Adam Rogers on two tracks and trombonist Hal Crook on one.
Adventure has been the watchword for the teenaged phenom, who was born Grace Chung on May 15, 1992. (She became Grace Kelly after her mother divorced and remarried and her stepfather, Bob Kelly, legally adopted Grace and her sister Christina.) The strong classical music background of her mother's family led her to begin piano lessons at age six, and she still does much of her composing at the piano as she sings wordlessly. Singing, dancing, writing songs, and theater were also early passions, soon joined by a fascination with the recordings of Stan Getz and other jazz saxophonists that her parents played during Sunday brunches. She began to study the clarinet at her elementary school in the fourth grade, and began private saxophone lessons a few months later. Further inspiration was provided by Ann Hampton Callaway, who detected "the boundless spirit and imagination of a natural artist" when she met Kelly in 2002. Another early champion, middle school music teacher Ken Berman, was so inspired by the pre-teen's playing and writing that he insisted, "you have to record." What followed was her first disc, Dreaming. "The CD release took place on March 17, 2004, when I was 12," she recalls, "and as soon as I walked on stage, I realized that performing was my favorite thing to do."
A growing list of triumphs and testimonials to Kelly's brilliance followed. Times Too (2005), a two-disc set, found her expanding her musical pallet while interpreting such classics as "Isfahan" and "'Round Midnight" with the gravitas of a veteran. The title track of her next disc, Every Road I Walked (2006), garnered the first of her ASCAP Foundation awards and an invitation to perform with the Boston Pops. When conductor Keith Lockhart asked her to play the composition at the concert with just a rhythm section, Kelly countered by suggesting that she write an arrangement for the full orchestra.
Kelly continued to garner accolades from artists she revered, sitting in with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Frank Morgan, and Phil Woods. ("I gave her my hat, that's how good she sounded," Woods enthused. "She's the first alto player to get one.") Perhaps her most intensive connection has been with Lee Konitz, who Kelly has studied with for the past three years. "The biggest lesson that Lee taught me has been spontaneity, from day one," she emphasizes, while Konitz has referred to Kelly as "all ears and all heart." Kelly asked Konitz to guest on two tracks for her fourth album, an invitation that led to the joint composition "GRACEfulLEE" and an entire disc of the same name. GRACEfulLEE, with the all-star support of guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Matt Wilson, garnered a rare four-and-a-half-star review in Down Beat, and has been widely acclaimed as one of the best jazz recordings of 2008.
Kelly received a full scholarship to Berklee and started college at the age of 16. Since age 12 Grace has performed over 500 concerts as a leader all around the world.