An Interview with Grace Kelly

This morning I had the opportunity to speak with 19-year-old jazz saxophonist Grace Kelly by phone. Grace has won numerous awards and released several albums already, as well as being a very talented vocalist, pianist and composer.

Grace will be coming to Seattle for the first time, performing at Tula’s for two nights as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival in November.

In this audio blog, Grace discusses how she went from being a clarinet player at 10 years old to having her first album recorded at age 12, being mentored and collaborating with the likes of Lee Konitz, Harry Connick Jr., Cedar Walton, and Wynton Marsalis, and being treated like a rock star in Montreal.

She also discusses her work and relationship with Phil Woods and being given his legendary hat, giving advice to young fans, and some surprises she has learned along the way.


“I still get butterflies when meeting the people who inspire me, and I think that is the way it is going to be for the rest of my life.”

Celebrating Sax Man Phil Woods

I’ve featured a variety of great conversations between KPLU’s Nick Morrison and Kirsten Kendrick in the past, and their recent chat about Phil Woods is no exception. Here is their discussion, as part of KPLU’s Artscape series.

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Kirsten: Nick, some people may not know Phil Woods’ name, but chances are they’ve heard him play before.

Nick: Well, yes. Phil Woods, like many jazz musicians, throughout his career did a lot of film work. He did a lot of studio work. He performed with Paul Simon on the song “Have a Good Time.” He did the wonderful sax solo on Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu.” And, of course, his SOLO shot heard round the world was the saxophone solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”

Just the Way You Are – Billy Joel featuring Phil Woods – The Stranger

Kirsten: But Phil Woods has been around for a while. He was one of the early Bebop saxophonists. And, at the time, Charlie Parker was still very much on the scene. How did this factor into his career path?

What is Bebop?

Wikipedia | Hypermusic

Nick: Well, like all alto saxophone players of that time and afterwards, comparisons with Charlie Parker were inevitable because Charlie Parker, if he didn’t write book on Bebop, certainly wrote the glossary for alto saxophone. So, you know, all alto saxophonists who came after Charlie Parker and wanted to play Bebop were influenced by him and had to develop their own voice to kind of move out of Charlie Parker’s shadow. And the first song in the list that we have is an early one by Phil Woods. It was from his second release in 1955 and it’s a version of “Get Happy.” And you’ll hear, certainly, the influence of Charlie Parker but you’re also hearing Phil Woods making his own statement. And I think it’s pretty clear – he’s having a great time.

Get Happy – Phil Woods Quartet – Woodlore

Kirsten: Wow! He just takes off there! And that could pretty much be said for his career. He just took off!

Nick: Yeah. And, I think he pulled off a pretty neat trick because, throughout his career right up till now – he’s still playing great – he’s always been this major force in Bebop but it never feels like he’s stuck in the past. It always seems like he’s moving forward. And I think one of the styles of music in which you can best hear that is when he plays a ballad. I think that he is one of the very best ballad players in jazz. There’s nobody who gets a more beautiful tone on the alto and is more expressive in a ballad than Phil Woods. And in 1973, he started a quintet that still goes to this day. It has some revolving members in the front line but it’s basically Phil Woods with bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin. And they’ve had a variety of trumpet players and piano players but this piece that we’re going to hear now features trumpeter Tom Harrell and pianist Hal Galper, who played with another great alto saxophone player during those times, Cannonball Adderley. This is from a CD called “Gratitude” and it’s called “Time’s Mirror” and Woods just soars on this one.

Time’s Mirror – Phil Woods Quintet – Gratitude

Kirsten: In addition to his quintet, Phil Woods is also known for his Little Big Band.

Nick: Yeah. And we have an example of that on our list as well. Back in 1957, Quincy Jones put out an album called “This Is How I Feel About Jazz.” Phil Woods was on that release. And later on, in 2004, he kind of returned the favor to Quincy by doing a CD of Quincy Jones compositions called “This Is How I Feel About Quincy.” And it was basically his quintet again with Brian Lynch on trumpet this time and Bill Charlap on piano rounded out with more horns. And this is the L ittle Big Band doing Quincy’s “Stockholm Sweetnin.'”

Stockholm Sweetnin’ – Phil Woods – This Is How I Feel About Quincy

Kirsten: Nick, let’s end this tribute to Phil Woods in his birthday month with what you like about him.

Nick: Well, I guess you could just say I love his sound. It seems a little bit weird but in all the time that I have been listening to jazz, there are really only four alto saxophonists that I can tell that I am listening to when I am listening to them. You know what I mean? I can identify their sound without knowing that it’s them: Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Paul Desmond and Phil Woods.

Kirsten: Nick, thanks again for coming in and giving us a little bit more music history!

Nick: You bet!

Emerging Artist: Grace Kelly

No, not that Grace Kelly.

grace kelly albumI’m torn to define saxophonist, singer, songwriter, composer, and arranger Grace Kelly as “emerging”, considering what she has already accomplished. But as Grace celebrates her 17th birthday next Friday (that’s right, she is just 16), one must assume that there is plenty of opportunity in years to come for this young lady to become a household name in jazz.

On his radio program Jazz After Hours this morning, host Jim Wilke suggested that “young” and “talented” can often go hand in hand, and that no one would argue that both can easily be applied to Grace Kelly. After hearing her wonderful recording of Comes Love, it was easy to agree. And, as her website boasts, I am far from the only person to agree.

Kelly, at age 16, has already performed or recorded with Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Harry Connick, Jr., Diane Reeves, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, Russell Malone, Cedar Walton, Peter Bernstein, and Marian McPartland. That is the very short list. She has also performed at Carnegie Hall, Birdland, and Scullers (another short list), as well as a variety of jazz festivals. She has won numerous young musician and student musician awards, and was named Best Jazz Act in Boston in 2008 by the FNX/Phoenix Best Music Poll. Oh, and she began her first term at Berklee College of Music last fall, on a full ride, again at age 16.

When you hear Grace Kelly play, or listen to one of her arrangements or compositions, you realize that this isn’t one of those situations where a musician will get cut slack simply based on the fact that they are young. Kelly needs no slack to be cut for her, and the attention that she has received and will continue to receive is more than worthy. Her performances and compositions are frighteningly mature and well designed. In fact, the only way you are even aware that the player is a 16 year old is if you are told that.

What is more surprising is that Grace isn’t someone who had a sax shoved in her hands at age two. She, like many of us, took piano lessons as a young kid. She also followed the typical chronological time line that most kids do in school, not really playing the sax until she was ten. Two years later, she was impressing the likes of Ann Hampton Callaway and Victor Lewis.

I am not someone who throws around the word “prodigy”, but there is not much way to avoid associating that word with Grace Kelly. To imagine what she has accomplished in six years is hard enough to believe. To actually hear it is even more unbelievable.

Grace Kelly’s fifth album is now available, titled Mood Changes. Watch Grace play Setting The Bar with Russell Malone below.