Grace Kelly Liner Notes: “Mood Changes”
By Don Heckman
A long, long time ago Winston Churchill, in a beautifully descriptive phrase, described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” An interesting thought. But what, you may ask, does that have to do with a new recording from Grace Kelly? Just this: that it also describes the astonishing talent that has magically – and mysteriously -- surfaced inside this gifted young artist. (And, speaking of descriptions, the much overused word “gifted” is, for once, completely applicable.) How else to explain Grace’s talent other than by resorting to something like Churchill’s expressive “riddle,” “mystery” and “enigma?”
Youthful jazz virtuosity hasn’t been unheard of in jazz, of course. Think, most recently, of the attention received by pianists such as Eldar and Taylor Eigsti – at the time when they were barely in their teens -- or guitarist Julian Lage, performing with Carlos Santana, Pat Metheny and others before he was in his teens. Grace, at 16, surely deserves the same high praise.
But there’s another aspect to her achievements that makes her considerably more unique: Grace’s gender. Jazz has lagged far behind virtually every other area of American society (other, perhaps, than the entire country’s choice of presidential candidates) in its misogynistic attitudes about female jazz horn players. Again, there are exceptions – reaching from the Diva big band to trumpeters such as the veteran Clora Bryant and more youthful Ingrid Jensen, and saxophonists such as Tineke Postma, Jane Ira Bloom and Anat Cohen (to name only a few) But, nonetheless, there’s probably not a male jazz fan anywhere who hasn’t had that moment of dawning wonder when he hears an all-female big band trumpet section roaring through a Count Basie flag-waver, or a female saxophonist roaring through a set of post-Coltrane choruses. “Wow!,” is the usual response, “Doesn’t she play good for a… “ The last word is mercifully left unnoted. There may be plenty of outstanding women horn players in jazz, but the brass ceiling still hasn’t been completely cracked.
So, the first time I heard Grace, I – like many other male listeners who haven’t completely shaken their foolish vision of jazz as a male art – initially responded to the utterly genderless qualities of her sound, phrasing and improvising. It was at L.A.’s Jazz Bakery, and Grace was romping, with consummate self-confidence, through classics – “I’ll Remember April,” “’Round Midnight,” “Caravan” – as well as her own well-crafted originals.
But, beyond the wonder of Grace’s brass ceiling-shattering style, there was another quality, one that reached into the creative maturity that resides beneath the dewiness of her age: a remarkable sense of maturity in her choices, across the board, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. Using a full assemblage of saxophone techniques – low end multiphonics, top of the horn harmonics, bent notes, blues slides and beyond – she played with the sort of understanding and command of her instrument that takes most players decades to achieve.
And there was more. She sang, as well, convincingly, already with a blossoming style of her own, blending her instrumentalist’s musicality with surprisingly mature phrasing and great believability in her interpretations of lyrics. Add to that her composing and songwriting skills – especially affecting in the thoughtful lyrics of “But Life Goes On.”
So, back to the riddle/mystery/enigma question. The answer would probably have to take into account the fact that Grace already has had a somewhat unusual life up to this point. The offspring of Korean parents living in Massachusetts, she moved to Brookline at the age of two with her mother and sister after her parents were divorced. When her mother married Bob Kelly a few years later, and she and her sister were adopted by her stepfather, and her name serendipitously became Grace Kelly.
Although that would appear to be a name that has already received all the entertainment world encomiums one could hope for, this Grace has begun to make her own claims for visibility and prominence. Four Grace Kelly CDs already have been released over the past four years, one them – “Times Too” – a 2/CD set. Another – “GRACEfulLEE” – includes the presence of alto saxophone icon Lee Konitz as a guest star.
But the truth is that – even if there were some sort of rational explanation for the amazing creativity generated by this pretty, sweet-looking teen-ager and her instrument – it probably wouldn’t be believable. Talent of the sort that sparkles through all of her playing, singing and writing is both one of a kind and inexplicable.
The evidence is here -- all over this new banquet of delectable musical dishes from Grace’s creative cuisine.
1. Happy Theme Song. It’s a bright, tasty, upbeat appetizer for the musical feast to come. For Grace, it was both a way to introduce the quintet, establish the bright spirit underlying the CD’s “Mood Changes” and give her an opportunity to display her capacity for straight ahead swinging.
2. Comes Love. “It was a real project,” says Grace. “My whole plan was to introduce lots of colors and different textures.” She did all that, and more, her alto and soprano saxophones swirling around each other, dipping in and out of her vocals, occasional moments of dissonance underscoring the lyrics. It’s the complete package, Grace’s many skills brought together to create a luscious setting for the Lew Brown/Sammy Stept/Charles Tobias classic.
3. Tender Madness. One of the two tunes on the album with Grace playing tenor saxophone, and it would be easy to misread the title as “Tenor Madness.” In fact, she was going for something different, an atmospheric musical theme in which sadness and softness are juxtaposed against each other. “I wrote it,” she says, “around midnight, and it just kind of has that dark night, mystical feeling. A lot of other emotions too, between sadness, guilt, happiness. But it’s definitely dark. I couldn’t think of a good title for the longest time. I was trying to come up with some kind of an oxymoron title to describe the different feelings. Then my mom finally came up with this. And it was perfect.
4. 101. An intriguing example of Grace’s expanding musical horizons, with its off-center meter and jaunty melody. The bass line surfaced in Grace’s mind after she had been listening to “lots of Billy Childs and his odd meters and interesting counterpoint, and Joshua Redman’s cool fusion. I was sitting at the piano one day fooling around and I came up with this bass line. Couldn’t figure out what meter it was, and then I realized it was in seven.” The original title Grace had in mind was “Parenting 101” – “Parenting from a kid’s point of view.” She had thoughts of making it a vocal, as well, but decided it might be “a little too controversial.”
5. But Life Goes On. A lovely original that Grace has been singing for a while, written in only two days. But it’s going to last a lot longer than that. Her startlingly mature vocal interpretation combine with the equally full-grown lyrics to produce a stunning example of her remarkable potential. Doug Johnson’s song-like piano interlude adds appropriate emotional counterpoint.
6. Ain’t No Sunshine. Bill Withers’ 1971 breakthrough hit, all dressed up in a slow-dance groove with a stunning set of choruses from Grace – including her quirky variation on Withers’ famous repetition of “I know, I know, I know, I know...” Adam Rogers’ guitar further enhances the mood, adding a touch of well articulated fusion. Grace says she first heard the memorable melody in “Notting Hill,” one of her favorite movies.
7. Here, There and Everywhere. “I try to include a Beatles song on every CD I’ve made since the first one. This time I wanted to find a good one that wasn’t one of their top hits.” It may not have been a Lennon & McCartney top seller, but it’s surely one of their most irresistibly appealing melodies. And Grace explores its lyricism with her characteristically full gamut of musical emotions. Here, as with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” she elected not to sing because “tunes like this already have such memorable vocal versions.” All of which makes one even more eager to hear what her uncluttered, youthful vocal imagination might do with a familiar pop tune such as this. Maybe she’ll let it fly with the Beatles tune on her next album.
8. I’ll Remember April. One of the great jazz standards, and a tune Grace once dueted on, memorably, with Phil Woods. Although it was done in just a few takes, it wasn’t initially included in the first program of tunes. But Grace decided the track provided another “huge mood” to include under the album title. Plus, she adds, “It’s got this party vibe.” And a virtually non-stop party at that, led by Grace’s irrepressible, high speed, Autobahn dash through the familiar changes.
9. It Might As Well Be Spring. Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto were in Grace’s mind when she decided to do this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic. That plus the appropriateness of the lyrics. “Sometimes it’s hard,” she says, “to find a vocal tune that really relates to my age, and that I can connect to the words well. And this tune is perfect. It really fits me and the words.” No way to argue with that, especially since she delivers on all counts, capturing the zephyr-light qualities of the Getz-Gilberto version, rendering the lyrics with the poignant believability of a teen-ager -- “as restless as a willow in a windstorm” -- and underscoring the feeling with her own warm-toned, Getz-ish tenor chorus.
10. I Want to Be Happy. If you start with “A Happy Theme Song,” what better way to wrap everything up than a jaunty, 7/4 version of Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar’s 1920’s paean to optimism. Grace makes a lot more of it than Youmans could ever have imagined, moving three horns – her alto, Jason Palmer’s trumpet and Hal Crook’s trombone -- through a rhythmically disjunct contrapuntal maze and several unexpected key changes. The tune, the arrangement and the playing add another final touch, as well – the extraordinary promise of Grace Kelly’s continuing growth as a complete musician.