When it comes to singer/ saxophonist/ composer/ lyricist/ arranger/ producer/ educator 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 21-year-old wunderkind. The ranks of the former category 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 that he invited her to join the ensemble at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama's Inauguration Celebration. 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. Since then, Kelly has been voted "Best Jazz Act” in Boston four consecutive years in the FNX/Phoenix Best Music Poll, and then voted Best National Jazz Act in 2012. She has received the ASCAP Foundation’s Young Jazz Composers Award in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013 and won "Jazz Artist of the Year” at the Boston Music Awards in both 2008 and 2010. The 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 Downbeat Critics Poll added to her the list naming her one of the "Alto Saxophone Rising Stars”, the youngest artist ever to be named to the music poll.
After releasing eight full length albums Grace released her first single "Sweet Sweet Baby" which has made it to #10 on the Billboard Magazine "Smooth Jazz Song Charts"
On Live at Scullers, her newest and eight release Kelly offers a set mostly composed of new material which shows off her remarkable versatility. Her sax chops have been granted the imprimatur of jazz elders like Phil Woods and Lee Konitz, both of whom have recorded with her. But here, Kelly’s instrumental virtuosity shares the spotlight with her winsome voice via her most song-oriented collection to date.
Kelly boldly offers her mission statement on the opening track, "Please Don’t Box Me In.” The title plea is made by a gifted musician and songwriter who sees no reason why the music she makes should be more single-minded than the music that she enjoys.
"I listen to a wide range of music, from Miles Davis to John Mayer,” Kelly explains. "Lately I’ve been listening to more contemporary music and songwriters and at the same time I’ve been more inspired to write songs. Growing up and learning the saxophone, I always listened more to singers than instrumentalists. Whenever I play a standard I always make sure to know the lyrics behind it. I feel like words are a really big connection between myself and the audience.”
Musical energy flows from the heart of 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 Grace 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 vocalist 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. Though still only 14 years old, conductor Keith Lockhart asked her to play her composition at the concert. Kelly met this challenge by writing her first full orchestral arrangement and performing it in Boston’s iconic Symphony Hall. "That experience taught me that anything is possible,” she says.
Still a teenager, Kelly continued to garner accolades for her playing and singing from artists she revered, performing and recording with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, Phil Woods, Harry Connick Jr., Huey Lewis, Jamie Cullum, Frank Morgan, Esperanza Spalding, Toots Thielemans, Hank Jones, Adam Rogers, Rufus Reid, Kenny Barron, Dianne Reeves, Ann Hampton Callaway, Cedar Walton, James Cotton, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Terri Lynn Carrington among others. Perhaps her most intensive connection has been with Lee Konitz, who Kelly has studied with since age 13. At first only her teacher, Kelly and Konitz’s relationship has grown into a personal friendship and mentorship. "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 **** ½ review in Downbeat Magazine, and has been widely acclaimed as one of the best jazz recordings of 2008 and the first decade of the new millennium.
2009 saw the release of her fifth album, Mood Changes, featuring her working quintet. This saw Kelly taking further steps as a bandleader, singer, and arranger. "There’s nothing like playing my own music with my own band,” she acknowledges. "Everyone is so comfortable, yet I feel as if I’m getting pushed in every performance. At the same time, I realize more of what I want over the years, and more direction goes into the music. Every time we play is a complete adventure.”
2011’s Man With The Hat followed, and saw Grace collaborating on an entire album with saxophone legend Phil Woods. The album is a tribute to the bebop legacy that Woods has espoused for his entire career, and consists of seven standards and originals penned by both Kelly and Woods and performed by an all-star ensemble. The duo hit the road with a European tour in support of the release, and continues to tour throughout the United States and Europe. Woods’ willingness to record and tour with the much younger Kelly is a testament to the musical wisdom she possesses on her instrument, despite her young age. "I gave her my hat, that’s how good she sounded,” Woods enthused. "She’s the first alto player to get one.”
To this astonishing list of kudos and credits, also in 2011, Kelly adds "Grace", the seventh release on her PAZZ label. The album marks a new direction for the accomplished artist into the genre of Gospel Jazz, and features renowned Gospel pianist George Russell Jr. The journey to make a spiritually driven album began with a performance at the 2010 Festival of Homiletics, a convention of over 2,000 ministers from all over the world, in Nashville, Tennessee.
While mostly duets between Kelly and Russell, Grace also features cameos from celebrated percussionist Jamey Haddad, of Paul Simon’s touring band, and classical guitarist Peter Clemente. The music on Grace brings Kelly’s elegant Jazz playing into a Godly context. From the uplifting opener "Blessed Assurance,” to a refreshing rendition of "Amazing Grace,” Kelly asserts herself as a soon to be powerhouse in the Gospel Jazz world.
"Through music, I feel like I’m channeling spiritual energy that I hope passes on to people and it’s been an amazing experience to see how people have been moved by this music. Since this is the gift I’ve been blessed with I feel that it’s very important to share it.”
Kelly recently graduated Boston’s Berklee College of Music. at age 19. "I auditioned for Berklee and received a full scholarship, I got my GED and started college at 16. It’s been great, playing all the time and just living music all day. I’m learning so much and I’m playing all kinds of music. It was a challenge to balance college with all the touring I do with my band but I was able to do both."
Grace has taught residency workshops at Berklee College since 2012
Since age 12 Grace has performed over 600 concerts as a leader all around the world at prominent venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, Montreal Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Apollo Theater, Birdland, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Montreux Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s Club Cocoa Cola, Ronnie Scott’s (London), Porgy & Bess (Vienna), Scullers Jazz Club, and in venues as far away as Europe and Asia. She has also released seven full-length albums and recorded with other artists as well.
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.” Monty Alexander says, "She is not an artist for Jazz lovers only but one for the whole world.” Her ambition has yet to outstrip her talent, and Grace manifests only the beginning of the young artist’s quest to continue to reinvent herself. As Ann Hampton Callaway predicts, "There is no telling how far this child prodigy will go with the limitless possibilities of her voluminous talents.”