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GRACEfulLEE by Grace Kelly & Lee Konitz

So Grace Kelly is sixteen? You could have fooled me. She doesn’t sound a day under forty. An alto saxophone phenomenon from Boston, Kelly has received more recognition by her mid teens than one would have thought possible. Indeed, the remainder of the space in this review would be insufficient for a complete listing of her accomplishments, such as her full scholarship to Berklee in 2008, her earning of four 2006 Down Beat student music awards, or her arrangement of her own composition for the Boston Pops, which she performed with them. Most germane to this review is Kelly’s release of her own CD with none other than Lee Konitz, her friend now of three years, though 65 years separate their births. Amazing.

Although a listener unfamiliar with Kelly’s talent may suspect the recording to be a novelty, such is not the case. For one thing, Kelly has earned already.... at sixteen! the respect of musicians like Russell Malone, Rufus Reid and Matt Wilson. For another, those musicians accompany her on GRACEfulLEE, with gratifying results. Then there’s Kelley’s musicianship. Not only do she and Konitz romp through free improvisations like "Call of the Spirits" and Konitz’s compositions like "Thingin’," but also the qualifies of her tone and her note choices suggest a maturity beyond her years.

As Wilson mentions in the liner notes, Kelly "is the first generation of musicians who were born with the Internet and the cell phone as commonplace as the light bulb." Yet, she received inspiration from jazz. What’s more, she performs convincingly with one of its original voices. Her duo with Konitz on the first track, "Subconscious Lee," makes one wonder at first hearing whether redundancy occurs as both play the alteration to the song "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Why two when one would do? Both Kelly and Konitz do solo for the sake of comparison, if curiosity would be the primary reason for hearing them. However, "Just Friends" brings home the justification for the album when Kelly interprets it beautifully, confidently and succinctly with back-up solely by Malone, whose major-to-minor-and-back accompaniment is just as iridescent. "Just Friends" confirms Kelly’s early familiarity not only with Konitz’s playing, but also with Paul Desmond’s. Her tone is pure and her approach is assured without ostentation, allowing her space to breathe with long tones and rests. As for Malone, his work on the CD exhibits a more restrained, more intellectual style from that expected on some of his previous recordings. On "Thingin’," Malone provides the freer accompaniment not to mention the out-of-scale notes and sly dissonances and chiming while bass and drums support the light swing, recalling the earlier work of Attila Zoller with Don Friedman and Konitz.

The strengths of the rest of the group emerge as well when Kelly, ever the generous young leader, allows for contributory opportunities in spontaneous fashion. The recognizable sonority of Reid’s musical personality distinguishes "There Is No Greater Love" in similar manner to Malone’s work on "Just Friends." Kelly takes a chance with Reid by playing a chorus in altissimo range, thereafter establishing her own sense of swing when Reid starts walking the bass. The final duo of Kelly with a member of the rhythm section occurs on "Call of the Spirits," a throbbing free improvisation expressed melodically as she builds upon the broad intervallic theme enhanced by Wilson’s Native American-inspired hand drumming to which she instantly responds.

However, clearly the inspirational force behind GRACEfulLEE is Konitz, whose music the group honors and whose style shapes the nature of the music. Kelly deserves much credit for not being intimidated by such jazz heavyweights. While Konitz and Kelly clearly enjoy the relaxed interaction on "Alone Together" played without the rhythm section, as one responds to the other’s ideas Kelly’s fearlessness is evident on "NY at Noon," a head-spinning free improvisation involving all of the members of the quartet, though less than two minutes long. An appropriate closer to this introductory CD, "NY at Noon" indicates wordlessly the musicians’ respect for the alto sax prodigy through the fact that none of them holds back in its cyclonic upswept movement, which she joins, or in the thrill of spontaneous creation.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Grace Kelly & Lee Konitz
  • CD Title: GRACEfulLEE
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Pazz Productions
  • Tracks: Subconscious Lee, Just Friends, GRACEfulLEE, There Is No Greater Love, You Don’t Know What Love Is, Alone Together, Buzzing Around, Thingin’, Call of the Spirits, NY at Noon.
  • Musicians: Grace Kelly, Lee Konitz (alto saxophone); Russell Malone (guitar); Rufus Reid (bass); Matt Wilson (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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