Saxophonist and vocalist Grace Kelly affirms her eclectic musical identity on the first track of her new album, Live at Scullers (released February 5).
On the album’s opening track “Please Don’t Box Me In,” she sings “Don’t tell me who I am/Let me tread the waters/ Let me scope the land/Cause I’m young/ I’m free/I have got dreams to fill/If I don’t act now/ Then I know I never will.”
Kelly makes it clear in this elegant, country-esque tune and on her new album that she is comfortable treading the waters between contemporary music and jazz, and she doesn’t want anyone to box her into a certain genre.
“People are either going to love it or hate it, and that’s because the album is so eclectic and that’s one of the things that I love. That song exemplifies the entire album,” Kelly told us during a phone interview from her hometown of Boston.
By looking at her youthful appearance and listening to her soft spoken voice, it would be easy to think that this album is Kelly’s introduction to the music scene. But, the 20-year-old Asian American musician is practically a veteran in the industry. She has been playing professionally since the age of 12, has nine albums under her belt, has performed with tons of jazz heavyweights like Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Hank Jones, and has been named ‘Alto Saxophonist Rising Star’ by Downbeat‘s Magazine Critics Poll four years in a row; and those are just a few of her accomplishments.
So, if anything, Live at Scullers is a continuation of Kelly’s personal journey through the landscape of jazz. She makes shifting between genres seem effortless, effectively navigating from straight ahead to big band, rock ‘n’roll and even gospel jazz, which she experimented with on her 2011 album, Grace. She has also recorded albums with jazz vets like saxophonists Phil Woods and Lee Konitz, who are her mentors.
While there are a number of musicians who influence her sound, she is careful not to emulate their sound too much, and instead finds her own way of getting a song across.
“It can be difficult when some of my idols have said ‘you are the future of jazz,’ but then I take it to mean, the future of jazz is wherever jazz is going,” said Kelly. “None of my mentors have ever told me ‘I expect you to play like this or carry on my legacy. They give me good advice, and I have gotten a lot of good feedback from them.”
Music has always been a part of Kelly’s life. Her parents are big jazz fans, so growing up Kelly would hear Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and other jazz artists during Sunday brunch. Getz was her parents’ favorite musician, and he influenced Kelly’s decision to take up the sax, which she began playing at age 10.
Kelly also comes from a musical background. Her aunt is a classical violinist and her grandmother is a classical pianist.
“Most of my relatives all went into classical music, so I’m the first odd jazz musician of the family,” said Kelly, jokingly.
Kelly was already a professional jazz artist and touring the country by the time she was 16. She also embarked on a college career at Berklee College of Music to enhance her musical skills.
“I wanted to go to Berklee because of the eclecticism within the college. I took arranging classes, did songwriting, and took percussion classes to stretch my comfort zone,” she said.
Attending Berklee broadened her musical skills and also influenced her sound, which is evident on Live at Scullers, her first live recording. Scullers holds a lot of history for Kelly, who has been frequenting the Boston jazz club since she was six years old and has performed there on numerous occasions.
Speaking about the setting for her new album, Kelly told us: “I knew that if I was going to do a live CD I wanted to have a really great audience. Having grown up in Boston and developed a fan base there since I was twelve, it literally sounds like a yelling hooting stadium when we come on stage at Scullers. People are just so enthusiastic, and I feel with this audience, I can do whatever I want.”
Kelly plays a few standards tunes on the live album, but most of her new material is an eloquent mixture of calming vocals, lush instrumentation, and pop tunes, all of which make her sound unique.
“At the end of day, I have to play what makes me happy,” she said. “I have realized that I am never going to play the saxophone as good as Charlie Parker and I don’t want to because his stuff is perfect. So I know that the only way to be truly unique is to contribute something different.”