The Jazz.com Blog
May 06, 2009 · 10 comments
Who is Grace Kelly?
I am not talking about the famous 1950s-era starlet (who became Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956), but rather the teenage alto player from Massachusetts who turns 17 in a few days. She seems to be everywhere in the jazz world these days.
Grace "is rapidly making her way up in the jazz music world. Grace's talents far outstrip others her age . . ." So proclaims the teenager's web site. And this is no generic MySpace page, but (like everything associated with Ms. Kelly) a slick, professional presentation. Much like her P.R. campaign, her new CD Mood Changes, etc.
Kelly has certainly earned some awards and credentials—an amazing number for someone so young. The honors and distinctions page of her web site is chock full of 'em. Has she hired a full-time grant and award application writer? How many sixteen-year-old musicians even know about the International Songwriting Contest or the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composers Award or the IAJE Composition Awards? But Grace can put these, and many like them, on her shelf.
I am even more interested in learning how Grace got to meet so many famous jazz musicians. Her site features more than 200 photos of Grace, usually posed alongside some well known jazz star after the gig. How many jazz musicians, even established ones, get to hang out with Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck and other hall of famers? I am impressed!
Ah, I wish I was more impressed with Grace Kelly's saxophone playing. I have been told many times that I should be impressed with it. Usually by a press release or email or starry-eyed member of the media. But I tend to bypass those and listen to the music when evaluating new talent. And what does the music tell us?
I give Ms. Kelly credit for not playing hoary licks and clichés. She avoids the obvious in her improvised lines, and that suggests that she has a strong ear and definite potential. She certainly doesn't try to dazzle the listener. Yet I would like to be dazzled, at least a little bit. Kelly is a very cautious soloist.
Her new CD—co-produced by Grace along with her parents—shows the scope of her ambitions. In addition to playing alto sax, tenor sax and soprano sax, she is now singing. She sings in tune and with a reasonably assured sense of phrasing. And I like her arrangements here, especially the overdubbed parts on her reworking of the old standard "Comes Love." But her sax playing never gets out of first gear.
I looked forward to hearing Kelly stretch out on "I'll Remember April" (see my review here)—whose fairly simple blowing changes and medium-up tempo give the listener a good platform for evaluating a young talent. The opening ten seconds are the best part of this performance. Kelly's tone is lovely here, sweet like a ripe plum, but unfortunately it gets more and more shrill as the song progresses. Her solo also seems to run out of steam as the track continues, and though this type of song is perfect for letting loose, Kelly is content to develop some simple melodic ideas, occasionally interspersed with phrases that sound like the start of something exciting . . . but the fireworks never arrive.
There is no problem with any of this . . . at least for your typical teenage sax player who isn't being touted as a prodigy. And I have no doubt that Grace Kelly will mature into a very fine player. But she isn't there yet. I take no joy in pointing this out. Yet when there are so many struggling young artists, who never get this type of visibility, someone needs to speak up and try to put matters into perspective.
Bill Kirchner, a very astute observer of talent, has shared this comment on Grace with me. "Grace Kelly is the latest entry in a decades-old roster of aggressively-marketed jazz wunderkinder; others have included Craig Hundley, Christopher Hollyday, and Sergio Salvatore. All have been characterized by good, if generic, playing skills and a media-genic cuteness. I believe it was the late Whitney Balliett who declared that jazz as a music abhors cuteness; perhaps because of that, the career durability of such youngsters has generally not been good."
In a few days time, I will return to this issue, and tell you about some alto players who are world-class talents, yet are working with very little publicity and support. Their music is hidden away on little-known self-produced or small indie labels. Their CDs are not financed by their parents. They don't hang out with Rollins and Ornette.
When I see a heavy-handed PR campaign for an under-developed talent, it makes me think of artists such as these and how deserving they are of some of the accolades, which are always scarce in the jazz world . . . except for those have grant-writers and well-financed support network at home.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia