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Amateur hour at Scullers: when Grace Kelly drops her sax

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Grace Kelly “Live At Scullers” album • February 5, 2013 PAZZ Productions

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Making a live album at Boston’s Scullers Jazz Club made sense for jazz saxophonist Grace Kelly. After all, she practically lived there. Her family lived for jazz and were frequent guests of the jazz club. She’d fall asleep in her father’s arms, as young as six. By age 13, she performed on its stage. At 14, she hosted her own CD release party.

Kelly’s been a huge draw at the Boston club since forever. Audiences love her. She loves them. Besides packing ‘em in as a headliner, she also got to sit in with legends such as David Sanborn, Steve Tyrell, and Ann Hampton Callaway.

“It was the perfect place to record a CD,” Kelly said. “I knew if I was going to do a live CD I wanted to have a really great audience. Having grown up in Boston and developed a fan base there since I was 12, it literally sounds like a yelling, hooting stadium when we come on stage at Scullers. People are just so enthusiastic, and I feel with this audience I can do whatever I want.”

On February 5, 2013, Kelly released Live At Scullers — full of new material and introducing her as a vocalist and songwriter. The live album gave the musician a chance to meld her love of song lyrics, which she’s always playing instrumentally as a jazz saxophonist, with her interest in Top 40 radio hits. “As a young person,” she explained, “I love the tradition but I also I listen to the radio. So I’ve been trying to figure out how to meld some of this contemporary stuff with jazz in a different way. I’m like a mad scientist in my laboratory experimenting.”

This live album is Kelly’s experiment — gone awry.

It’s clear from the first track, “Please Don’t Box Me In,” that Kelly is a better instrumentalist than singer. She wrote the song, clearly about herself and her need to find who she is and what she can do: “ Please don’t box me in | Let my heart be free | Let me find my voice…” In this album, she’s still finding her voice.

When Grace Kelly drops her sax to experiment vocally, it’s embarrassing to hear. Her voice goes all over the place, with an off-putting, strident wail that doesn’t quite come back into the realm of pleasant or even a workable tension.

Even in the confluence of the horn solos, it seems as if Kelly and trumpeter Jason Palmer are at cross purposes. Their joint duet on horns clash jarringly, without any sense of time, musicality, or layers. It’s as if they’re horning in on each other’s solos, not working together.

“Eggshells’ is another Grace Kelly original, which fares a little better in the addition of what sounds like the ukulele (Pete McCann). McCann lifts the musically muttering piece in the tropical rise of the chorus, completely reaching for the blue skies of a beachside party somewhere on Hawaii’s North Shore. Kelly picks up on Hawaiian and country in that chorus, even when her voice can’t sustain the impossible highs she’s forcing it to.

The breezy “Night Time Star” plays much better, less vocal histrionics, more guitar-flecked movement along the lines of Jobim. But then she has to start in again with her vocal gymnastics, leaving a limp, forced, and juvenile feel with her burst of hip scat-rap: “I’m too too high to touch the ground | And no one can bring me down | You are my world, you are my smile…” The lyrics themselves aren’t much to speak of; just generic, schoolgirl platitudes. The resulting solos seem also thrown in there, just to busy up the nighttime landscape with some forced flair.

Much of the live album feels cliché, from the accompanying verbiage about “reading each other’s minds,” communicating “on stage musically,” and feeding off the audience, to the giddiness when Jason Palmer drops the intro to the TV sitcom Sanford And Son in a solo from “Searching For Peace,” to the jostling for position in the intermediate solo interplays.

The one bright spot arrives on the fourth track, “Autumn Song,” all instrumental not surprisingly. After the horns bump into one another instead of riding side by side in the intro, the ride gets smoother. Guitarist Pete McCann leads the way home through graceful strides and fluent rolls reminiscent of a bull-charging flamenco dance. It’s five minutes and 51 seconds of loveliness and very little excess.

The jury’s out on Grace Kelly, the jazz vocalist. But her future’s assured as a rising saxophonist.

She recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to make her next album, Working For The Dreamers.

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