As odd as it feels to use a hip-hop parlance for a jazz artist, Grace Kelly is, indeed, fresh.
The 26-year-old saxophonist, singer, and composer comes to jazz with a desire to embrace the contemporary and the emotional through performance. Meanwhile, her studied reverence shines through in recordings such as her devastating cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” or the hard-bop tune “Fish and Chips,” where her breaths and effortless reed-work conjures up thoughts of Charlie Parker, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Cannonball Adderley.
“I think about performance as an opportunity to really unite the audience and bring them a lot of joy and happiness and love,” said Kelly, who performs at Yoshi’s on Friday, Oct. 11. “I’m extremely lucky that my job is the one that is spreading all of those good feelings. I think that we all need more of that. If an audience member is going to take the time, spend their money, and take time out of their busy lives to see us, I’m applauding them. I’m saying, ‘Thank you.’ for setting their spirit free and letting us be a part of that. I feel that it’s my job and responsibility as a performer to give everything I have in that moment to lift people up and help them walk out a little bit happier. If my music helps them feel a little bit more inspired on connection with their emotions. They might be in a place where you’re happy, or they might be in a place where one of the ballads makes them cry, either way, we’ve made that emotional connection.”
Jazz as a term of description has become quite nebulous, causing a slew of infinitives to describe the music as it has evolved. There’s the “Smooth-Jazz” of Kenny G and Dave Koz, along with “Acid-Jazz,” “Fusion-Jazz,” and “Jazz-Funk.” Fortunately, Kelly’s music is mostly rooted in what can be referred to as “Traditional Jazz,” leaning toward the sound and feeling of jazz music during the bop, cool, and West Coast eras. Kelly manages to walk the tightrope of then and now with a grace and aplomb well beyond her years. “Count On Me” on GO TiME: Brooklyn is reminiscent of Grover Washington, but there are Coltrane-esque embellishments mixed with the hard-driving bursts echoing Adderley.
Having appeared regularly in the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert under Jon Batiste, Kelly has won multiple ASCAP Composer Awards, Boston Music Awards, and International Songwriting Awards, including placing second in the 2017 International Songwriting Competition (Adult Contemporary category). She’s performed in over 800 concerts in over 30 countries, including the Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall. In 2016, Downbeat magazine named her a “Rising Star,” and the Boston Music Awards of that same year named her “Jazz Artist of the Year”
Kelly is the very definition of a virtuoso.
“I was lucky to grow up hearing the sounds of classical music and jazz,” she said. “And ever since I could talk, I was told I was singing. I wrote my first time when I was seven years old. I sat down at the piano and the words just came out. I started jazz piano, and in fourth grade, I got to the saxophone because I had always been in love with the sound. It was an instant connection. I recorded my first album when I was 12 years old and studied at the New England Conservatory when I was in middle school. Then I attended Brooklyn College at the age of 16 on a full scholarship and taught for them.”
Kelly has been on tour ever since and has performed or recorded with Questlove, Lin Manuel Miranda, Esperanza Spalding, Harry Connick Jr, Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Emma Stone, Huey Lewis, and Gloria Estefan. Besides her incredible mastery of the saxophone, Kelly brings a performative quality to her music that can be felt in everything she does from her tone, to her presentation.
“I really enjoy playing with the performance aspect of a live show,” said Kelly. “It’s not your typical jazz show. I’m on stage singing. I get the crowd singing. We’ve had dancers on stage before, and I look for the very colorful and dynamic and eclectic in every performance.”
Featured in Vanity Fair as a jazz artist who’s “rewriting the rules of the performance experience,” for her latest album, GO TiME: Brooklyn, Kelly worked with dancers and choreographed a live show which she then put up on Facebook Live, garnering over 100,000 views. Along with everything else that she does, Kelly also maintains a YouTube Channel called PopUp where she plays jazz solos in unexpected and strange places.
“GO TiME: Brooklyn was not only an album when we recorded it. I put it up on YouTube and that way it’s a video album,” Kelly said. “One of the clips just reached over a million views, and it’s got dancing in it, big pink furs and saxophones. I like to think that we really shook something up in the way that we distributed the music, the way that we recorded it. We had our cinematographers right there in the recording studio documenting and ten to fifteen super fans in a circle around us listening on their wireless headphones. I want to use my background and, hopefully, bring some freshness to the music.”
It’s rare to run across a true prodigy of anything, much less one who adds so much to such a complicated and complex musical form. It’s refreshing to find out that more than the money, fame, and respect her career has given her, she still sees herself as a performer, as a steward to both the music and her audience.
“The greatest reward in being a performer is knowing exactly how the music has touched people,” she said. “Hearing them say to me, ‘I needed that,’ and giving me a giant hug. To be a part of that process is beautiful. When there’s a great crowd and good energy there’s no other feeling like that in the world.”
Fri. Oct. 11, 8 p.m., $33-64, Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510-238-9200, Yoshis.com