“I‘d never dreamed that I would have this relationship with him or that I‘d even meet him,” says Kelly, reminiscing about that experience. “I look at this hat that he's worn on his album covers for the last fifty years and it's really well worn, and now he has a brand new one. It's really a special memory.”
Four years later, the 18-year saxophone prodigy returns the favor with a new CD featuring and in tribute to Woods, aptly titled Man With the Hat. A fresh take on the bebop legacy that Woods has espoused for his entire career, the album arrives just in time to inaugurate the alto great‘s 80th birthday year and consists of seven standards and originals penned by both Kelly and Woods and performed by an all-star ensemble.
“Phil has been one of my biggest inspirations since I started playing saxophone,” Kelly says, and when the two saxophonists pair up there‘s no mistaking the qualities that they share. Throughout Man With the Hat, both pair sophisticated elegance with a sprightly swing, erasing six decades of separation between players who are either forever young or old souls.
The two first crossed paths in 2006, when Kelly attended the Stanford Jazz Residency Program in California, where Woods was an instructor and offered some encouraging words. It was a few months later, at a gig in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when Kelly was invited on stage and knighted with his cap. In his liner notes, Woods enthuses, “I sleep a little better knowing this lady is playing the instrument I love so well. Bird, Rabbit and Mr. Carter would be equally pleased I am certain!”
While Woods may speculate about the reactions of those bygone giants, Kelly‘s talents have attracted the praise of several legends who remain among us. Primary on that list is Lee Konitz, with whom Kelly recorded her fourth CD, GRACEfulLEE, in 2008. But she‘s also earned accolades and mentorship from the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., and Dave Brubeck.
One more name that can be added to that list is that of pianist Monty Alexander, who calls her “one of the most gifted, deeply musical, charismatic, and delightful musicians I have ever known in all my years in the world of jazz.” Alexander was the first person Kelly thought of when assembling the band for Man With the Hat. “I just love his playing,” she says. "It‘s so swinging and so cheerful."
That cheerfulness is a key element to Kelly‘s sound; even on ballads, her sheer joy in the music beams through. She infused that quality into the disc‘s title track, written with Woods in mind. “I wrote it thinking about his sound on the saxophone,” Kelly says. “He has this incredible buzz that is present and very alive. Phil is so lyrical, it's always easy to sing along with what he's playing.”
The band is completed by drummer Bill Goodwin, whose association with Woods dates back to 1974 and the inception of his long-running quartet; and bassist Evan Gregor, a member of Kelly‘s touring quintet for three years. Their road-tested compatibility is evident on their gorgeous duet performance of Cole Porter‘s “Everytime We Say Goodbye.”
When it came time to choose the repertoire for the album, Woods came up with another present - a new set of lyrics to Benny Carter‘s “People Time” penned by singer and screenwriter Deborah Pearl. Beyond her skills as saxophonist, composer and arranger, Kelly is gifted with a lovely, supple voice which matches perfectly with Pearl‘s wistful imagery. The disc's second vocal track, Kelly's original “Gone”, showcases her soulful side.
Her plaintive take on Bill Strayhorn‘s “Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus-Eaters”, or the jaunty stroll through “The Way You Look Tonight”, Kelly offers a decidedly modern perspective on traditional bop without losing sight of what attracts her to music from which she is several generations removed.
“The thing that drives me is that it‘s so incredibly swinging,” she says. “You just want to dance to it. Music today has turned into a heavy intellectual sound. When I turn on these old-school records by Ray Brown and hear Monty or Phil, it‘s not complicated to the listener. It just feels really good and everybody can relate to it, and I love that. I like it when you can feel that the music does something really substantial to your soul.”
Grace Kelly already has her own story to tell on the horn, and there‘s no doubt that she will speak volumes as time goes by. This veteran participant in the jazz scene is happy to have been around to witness her transition from prodigy to truly amazing Grace.
Grace Kelly · Man With The Hat
PAZZ Productions · Release Date: January 25, 2011