Grace Kelly and Phil Woods – Man with the Hat – Pazz Productions Pazz 18-11 – 43:18 – ****½:
(Grace Kelly, alto sax and vocals; Phil Woods, alto sax; Monty Alexander, piano, Rhodes and melodica; Evan Gregor, bass; Bill Goodwin, drums; Jordan Perlson, percussion)
Child prodigies seemingly arrive every year in the greater jazz community, but it takes talent, charisma, some lucky breaks, and the support of established musicians to close the deal. Having good looks and a passable singing voice can also provide a public buzz. (And did I say a famous name couldn’t hurt..)
Grace Kelly is getting heavyweight praise, and her new CD with alto sax legend Phil Woods, “Man with a Hat,” brings out some of the same expectations that were focused on Esperanza Spalding a few years ago.
Phil Woods first heard Grace when she was only 14 years old and was so impressed that he gave her his trademark leather hat. He had been told about Grace by another legend, Lee Konitz. He states in the press literature that she plays so well that Bird, Rabbit (Johnny Hodges) , and Benny Carter would be equally pleased. Hyperbole?
I don’t know if I would go as far as Woods’ praise, but Grace, now 18 years old, certainly can play. She has a mature tone well past what one would expect from an artist old enough to vote but not yet legal to buy a beer in most States.
Grace was born in 1992 and her birth name was Chung, but when her mother remarried , Grace took on her step father’s name, and with her new name and childhood talent, she was halfway there, certainly a name to remember if she had the talent to back it up. Backed by her own label, she had put out four CDs already prior to this new issue. Her first was at age 12!
“The Man With the Hat” is the opener and Grace certainly can swing. Her blend with Woods is effortless and she takes the opening solo. Her tone is swinging with clear intonation. It’s light mid-register bop here and she shows she belongs with a group of this caliber. “Love Song from the Brazilian Suite” follows, and Grace and Phil are simpatico, sounding like they have played together for years. The great Monty Alexander plays a supple piano line that adds to the mood of contentment.
Benny Carter’s “People Time” shows Grace’s vocals to be a bit below par compared to her alto blowing but to expect the same maturity from such a young vocalist is not quite fair. Phi’s obbligatos save the day and Evan Gregor’s bass solo is sublime.
“Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus-Eaters” by Billy Strayhorn is where Ms. Kelly really shines as she shows a lyrical swing quality well beyond her years. I can appreciate the comparison to Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges as the standard that Grace is shooting for. A long way to go, but for her age, her progress is truly remarkable.
“Gone”, written by Grace, provides an opportunity to hear Alexander play the melodica, which is a real treat. Grace is the only sax on the last three tracks and this provides a chance to judge her on her own merits without Woods’ prowess. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” finds Grace in a duo with bassist Gregor. I studied this track with rapt attention to check out the real Grace. At ballad tempo she explores the lower range of her alto, and although not mastered, I again marveled what control this young woman has. She will develop more dynamics to fill out her sound surely as her tone matures even more. “The Way You Look Tonight” is a natural for her and she proves she has be-bop credentials and she can play at a fast pace without pause.
I came away from this CD impressed with Grace Kelly. Her accolades from critics and numerous major jazz figures are deserved and earned. Well done!
TrackList: Man with the Hat, Love Song from Brazilian Suite, People Time, Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus-Eaters, Gone, Every Time We Say Goodbye, The Way You Look Tonight
— Jeff Krow