This lovely record is Grace Kelly’s second alto summit meeting.
The first, GRACEfulLEE, was with Lee Konitz, and took place when this amazing young woman was all of 15. Still in her teens at this encounter with her “inspiration and hero” Phil Woods, it reveals, as she points out in her informative notes (which, along with the encomiums from Phil and Monty Alexander, leave me with little of significance to say), a different perspective on the jazz and alto saxophone traditions. Much of the music she made with Lee (which is a must-hear) was on-the-spot invention, while this pairing required more planning. (It’s interesting that, at this writing, Lee and Phil were planning to record together.)
The splendid supporting cast includes key members of Grace’s and
Phil’s regular groups, bassist Evan Gregor, born in 1983 and with the young altoist for three years, and drummer Bill Goodwin, who’s been with Phil for what to this fan seems like forever (actually since 1974!), and for some special seasoning, the one and only Monty Alexander, who brightens any musical scene. (I’ve never seen an audience that Monty couldn’t bring to its feet–which he’d kept tapping.) This triumvirate enhances what Phil and Grace are up to here, which is making beautiful music, with a (to this listener) most welcome emphasis on melody.
That quality imbues Grace’s fine composition from which this CD takes its title, The Man with the Hat. Stated by the two altos in perfectly intonated harmony, Grace’s theme some how reminds me of Benny Carter (who comes into his own elsewhere). She is the first soloist, and it’s clear that she has her own sound, and her own way of phrasing–unlike many young and gifted musicians, she does not, even at this still early stage, reveal any obvious stylistic models. Phil follows with a strong statement (with a little bow to James Moody along the way), and Monty stretches out, hinting at another irresistible piano man, the greatly missed Erroll Garner. The alto tandem recapitulates the theme–one that I’m pretty sure will be heard again.
Phil’s Love Song, from his Brazilian Suite, was first heard on a great double LP, “Live from the Showboat,” in 1976, and it’s nice to encounter it again in these good hands. Phil is the first soloist, Grace does some of the special tonguing that is an attribute of her style, and Monty scores again–in fact, the rhythm section is great throughout, Bill doing some of that punctuation he’s so good at.
People Time is a tribute to the immortal Benny Carter, with whom
Phil had a very special relationship. They recorded this great theme together, in the same year (1989) that Stan Getz first did–it would become his favorite in his final years. Now we hear it for the first time with lyrics, created by Benny’s (and his widow Hilma’s) friend Deborah Pearl. Enhanced by Phil’s obbligatos, Grace sings with a clear, sweet voice and much feeling–her voice, fittingly, has a youthful quality that her playing does not. Evan Gregor’s solo adds to the success of this “first,” and one hopes that the lyric will give People Time further exposure.
Billy Strayhorn’s Ballade for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters ranks with the longest song titles of all times, but becomes much more compact as “Bittersweet,” when done with lyrics. A showcase for Johnny Hodges, with whom Strayhorn enjoyed a very special musical relationship, it is a logical follow-up to the Carter tune, these two being the undisputed alto kings of their generation. The melody has that special Strayhorn touch for which bittersweet is a very apt term, and Grace and Phil give it full value, in that sequence.
Monty offers a pretty solo, and I think Grace is the lead in the ensembles. Don’t miss Goodwin’s tasty brushwork.
Gone is yet another showcase for Grace’s composing talents–the words are in collaboration with David Greenberg. It’s a wistful song,
fetchingly rendered, and with a brief alto bonus. Monty doubles on the Melodica a chromatic keyboard harmonica that I recall being used (in moderation) by none other than the great Earl Hines.
Cole Porter’s Everytime We Say Goodbye is a challenge Grace set herself–playing with the sole support of arco bass. It comes off (Evan does a fine job of staying in tune, not a given when it comes to bowing), with the emphasis on thematic variations, and she also maintains the pulse throughout at ballad tempo. And there’s that distinctive sound.
The Way You Look Tonight is a great vehicle for improvisation though
Jerome Kern was no friend of jazz. Charlie Parker was the first to enter
it in the jazz mainstream, under various disguises, and Grace shows us some bebop chops here. The tempo is up–and stays there–and she doesn’t flag, swinging, and offering some distinctive flurries. Monty comes into his own here with an interestingly constructed solo (dig that hint of Third Man Theme, for Orson Welles fans), which sets up
Grace’s happy theme restatement, spotting some of that special tonguing, and a neat tag-and-fade ending.
Grace Kelly already has her own story to tell on the horn, and there’s no doubt that she will speak volumes as time goes by. This veteran participant in the jazz scene is happy to have been around to witness her transition from prodigy to truly amazing Grace.