From her opening blues, “Filosophical Flying Fish,” to the concluding “Summertime” done as a sort of neo-boogaloo, Grace Kelly’s Thursday concert at The Seasons in Yakima, Washington, left no doubt that she is in the top flight of today’s alto saxophonists. She has been there for some time. Here is what I wrote after I first heard her at a festival jam session in 2007 (pictured then, above).
I know of no explanation other than genius for this slender fourteen-year-old girl’s attainment of maturity in her art. She has mastery of the instrument, passion, profound swing, and judgment that one would expect in a player with twenty years of professional experience.
Now that Ms. Kelly is 21, I’ll revise that to the equivalent of forty years of experience and musical wisdom, with her teen enthusiasm intact.
Fresh from the Portland Jazz Festival with a rhythm section of Los Angeles pros, she played a program of nine original compositions and a sprinkling of standards. Introducing “Don’t Box Me In,” she explained that the title refers to her insistence on exploring many genres of music, but her solo had the bebop purity and passion that characterize her playing. The motion in her improvised lines on “Autumn Song” paralleled her physical movement, which might have been choreographed by Twyla Tharp at her most uninhibited. In Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” Ms. Kelly met the challenge of not sounding like Johnny Hodges, who all but owned the piece, or anyone else, except for one little trill suggesting Phil Woods.
A new Kelly song, “Touched By an Angel,” with a riff-like section and lyrics delivered in her high, clear voice, has pop potential. Electric bassist Jerry Watts and drummer Steve Hass added to the contemporary feel as Ms. Kelly played boppish lines that no one would mistake for Kenny G. For the extended coda, she recruited the audience as the band’s backup choir. She did McCoy Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner” in the spirit of Tyner’s 1967 original recording. Full of originality, Quinn Johnson played a solo that avoided the universal temptation of jazz pianists to approximate Tyner’s style.
Johnson was also impressive in “Amazing Grace,” a piece from Mr. Kelly’s 2011 album of gospel music. She played an extended ending that suggested she is as familiar with Hank Crawford as with Phil Woods, Lee Konitz and Charlie Parker. Hass, a veteran of associations as varied as Nicholas Payton, Tierney Sutton and Art Garfunkel, was a source of rhythmic power and good cheer throughout the concert.
From Yakima, Ms. Kelly was headed to a couple of one-nighters in California, then a European tour that will include Germany, Sweden, Austria, Turkey and Switzerland. She will be back to play at the March 22 Marian McPartland memorial service in Port Washington, New York.