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Having come of age in public, saxophonist Grace Kelly hits her stride

We’re at another breakthrough moment for Grace Kelly. By now you could say the Brookline-raised saxophonist, songwriter, and singer has had a few. Like when she released her first CD at age 12, already endorsed by esteemed teachers like Jerry Bergonzi. Or when she sold out her first show at Scullers Jazz Club, at age 13. When she performed her arrangement of an original tune with the Boston Pops at 15, or when she recorded with jazz legends Lee Konitz and Phil Woods.

Now 23, Kelly is blowing up on a few different fronts. She’s just issued “Trying to Figure It Out,” her 10th album as a leader, on her own Pazz label, and will celebrate its release on May 22 at the Berklee Performance Center with support from sax star David Sanborn. She plays five nights a week with Jon Batiste and Stay Human, the house band on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” She’s written music for and performed on “Bosch,” the Emmy-nominated Amazon Prime TV series created by crime writer Michael Connelly. And she’s featured in a new documentary, “Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story” about the late, great alto saxophonist. That film, produced by Connelly and directed by N.C. Heikin, will be screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on April 24, followed by a Q&A with Heikin, and a short performance by Kelly.


There’s never been any doubt about Kelly’s talent. In addition to Bergonzi, who lauded the then-12-year-old’s “lyricism and . . . sensitivity,” other teachers have marveled at her ability to play in a variety of contexts with equal authority. Back around the release of her CD with Woods, “Man With the Hat,” I asked the older player (who died last year) what was special about Kelly. “Maturity,” he said, and then demurred: “It’s not any one thing. She’s got the whole kit.”

Now, Kelly is no longer the freakishly talented child, but an adult trying to make her way among other working musicians, while at the same time establishing her individuality and, with luck, extending her star power for the long haul.


The good news is that on “Trying to Figure It Out,” she shows a new authority as a player, writer, and singer. Listen to the relaxed, insinuating groove of “Blues for Harry Bosch” (which she played on “Bosch” in a scene set in a jazz club), a simple riff-based tune that’s both catchy and deeply textured. Kelly has always had a “mature” sound: soft, rounded, and full. But there’s new warmth in her phrasing of her signature standards “Smile” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and the original “Ballad for MC” (for Connelly).

Kelly’s singing has grown especially impressive. Compare her performance of “Smile” with that from her debut: The latter was a child’s fresh-faced reassurance, while the new version is informed by an adult awareness of pain, Kelly’s singing shaded with her beautifully controlled vibrato.

Reached by phone at her current home in Brooklyn, Kelly tells me that, after going through the changes of adolescence and post-adolescence, she has a new confidence in her voice. She credits teacher Jo Lawry, a singer whose resume includes backup work with Paul Simon and Sting, for working with her on control.

Another important influence was Morgan. The bop-era saxophonist invited Kelly to sit in with his band at Scullers after meeting her through his pianist, George Cables, another of Kelly’s teachers. The next day, Morgan called and asked her to join him for a gig at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Many more gigs followed, as well as daily phone conversation with the man she started to call “Grandpa Frank.”


“He’d say, ‘Are you practicing? Practice “Donna Lee” in all keys!’ ” she recalls. On another occasion, after playing a Thelonious Monk piece at New York’s Jazz Standard, “he kind of looked at me and said, ‘Hmmm, you weren’t cutting it on that. You really need to use a lot more rhythm when you’re playing — Monk tunes particularly.’ ”

But perhaps most important to Kelly were Morgan’s comments about creating a beautiful sound and conveying emotion. He advised her to practice ballads as quietly as possible. “He told me that at the end of the set, if he had made just one person cry after he played a ballad, he could leave happy. That was how he measured the set, which was amazing, because he could play just the most burning fast tempo. But that didn’t matter to him; he wanted to make people feel something, or shed a tear, and really connect with them on that level.”

Similarly, Kelly says that “Trying to Figure It Out” represents her first attempt not just to document her playing, but to craft a complete musical statement. She sees the album moving from the noirish emotional darkness of “Blues for Harry Bosch” and the cinematic “He Shot a Man” (sung by Shayna Steele) to the “light” of more upbeat contemporary sounds, including a cover of Coldplay’s “Magic” and a New Orleans-funk finale featuring Batiste, “Lemons Make Lemonade.”


“Once one passes a certain age, all of the ‘wow, she’s a little girl’ magic is gone,” Kelly says in a follow-up e-mail, “and the only thing that’s left is the true substantial music.”

Grace Kelly

With special guest David Sanborn. At Berklee Performance Center, May 22 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $27-$47. 617-747-3161,

“Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story,” Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, April 24 at 3 p.m. Tickets: $25. 617-734-2500,

Jon Garelick can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.