Grace Kelly’s Live Album: Norah Jones for Smart People

by delarue

Ever try to elevate peoples’ game, listeningwise? You have to choose your moments. Usually this kind of persuasion works best on older people who only know the most popular, poppiest artists in a particular style. You like that Adele song? Just wait til you hear Sharon Jones. What’s that, the Eagles’ Greatest Hits? Um…you might like Mumford & Sons. A small step for humankind; a quantum leap for your friend.

Likewise, if Norah Jones works for you in theory but not in practice, you’ll love Grace Kelly. Like Jones when she first got started, a lot of what Kelly is doing lately is a more lively take on countrypolitan, a Nashville sound that was popular in the late 50s and 60s. Producer Owen Bradley and others would take standard-issue country songs, add lush strings and often elements of jazz. Willie Nelson got his start that way; Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis achieved crossover success with songs like Crazy and The End of the World. Kelly comes to this music from the opposite direction. A saxophonist by trade, she’s a protegee of bop jazz legend Phil Woods, and she also sings.

On her new album Live at Scullers, there’s some straight-up jazz – an animated, swinging take on the Jerome Kern standard The Way You Look Tonight, and an original, Autumn Song, which moves gracefully from a lush intro to an exuberant romp featuring the whole band. On the funk side, the concert ends with a sprawling, goodnatured cover of Summertime that brings to mind  Brooklyn psychedelic funkmeisters Otis. In between is the vocal stuff and most of it is very good.

The show opens with Please Don’t Box Me In, an elegant, artsy bossa pop tune that Kelly uses to air out her upper register, vocalwise, and follows later on with a carefree but terse alto sax solo. The arrangements here are a lot closer to jazz than country: the big swells can be lush, but more often than not the playing is spare and smart…like the way Pete McCann gently tremolopicks his guitar chords and then smacks them right on the beat as the song winds out. Trumpeter Jason Palmer keeps the energy high; bassist Zach Brown bows a couple of wry country fiddle solos, cellist Eric Law taking over the basslines when he does that, drummer Mark Walker hanging back with a steady purist groove.

Kelly wrote the lyrics to the mutedly frustrated, bouncily syncopated country tune Eggshells in a hotel room in Germany and the music on the plane home to Boston. She leads the band back into bossa-tinged jazz-funk on Night Time Star, then goes into boudoir country-bluesy territory with the nonchalantly seductive Ready, Set, Stay. The longest track here is the funky instrumental Searching for Peace, lit up by high-energy solos from Palmer and then Kelly on soprano sax. The band’s cool, low-key approach on the country waltz Kiss Away Your Tears matches the tenderness of the lyrics; then they pick up the pace with a ukulele tune.

Kelly is relatively young (early 20s), and most of her band, other than the guys who serve as Paquito D’Rivera’s rhythm section, seem around that age as well, so there are some rookie mistakes. A numbing bagpipe-metal guitar solo destroys the coy mood on one of the country songs – and why they’d want to have somebody whistling off-key where Kelly could have played the tune on soprano and nailed it is anybody’s guess. But that’s nitpicking. Kelly is smart, writes her own songs and is somebody to keep your eye on – and the album makes a great nudge gift for someone you know who would embrace good music if they just had the time or the energy to go looking for it. That’s where you come in.