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Santa Barbara News Press
"Keeping the Jazz Faith: Julie Kelly is a Fine Champion
of Jazz Vocal Tradition
By Josef Woodard
On the short list: Female jazz
singer Julie Kelly is finally tasting the limelight.
Female jazz singers are suddenly
tasting the limelight in the general public these days, with names
like Diana Krall, Jane Monheit and Norah Jones (though she's of
only marginal "jazz" orientation) circulating on levels
of sales and visibility previously reserved for pop artists. A positive
result of the new jazz chanteuse phenom could well be a broader
awareness of a basic cultural fact: Jazz singers are everywhere,
tucked away and pursuing their passion in cities around the country,
and the world.
Down Los Angeles way, the short list of important
jazz singers, who perform, record and often also teach, would include
Tierney Sutton, whose recent albums on Telarc have garnered growing
attention, and Julie Kelly, who has been on the scene there for
more than 20 years, and has several albums to her name. Kelly is
a fine champion of jazz vocal tradition, who is making her way to
SOhO on Monday and richly deserves an ear.
Kelly has been practicing her art long enough
to notice the recent surge of attention on jazz singing. In a recent
telephone interview from her home in the San Fernando Valley, she
talked about the "trickle down" effect in the jazz vocal
"When I have a concert in a place where
you get a real cross section of people, I've noticed that they'll
be more of an educated group. They will ask for material by name,
like 'Let's Fall in Love' or 'Waters of March.' If they don't ask
by name, they'll recognize songs, just because these high-profile
singers are exposing the general public to lots of the repertoire."
Kelly was born and raised in Oakland, went to
Juilliard in New York and basked in jazz culture there, then came
back to California, first to the Bay Area and ending up in L.A.
in 1980. It was when she returned to California that Kelly had her
moment of truth, deciding that jazz singing would be her life.
"I didn't even think about whether it would
be jazz or not," she says, "because all I really wanted
to sing were those songs. To me, it wasn't really a choice as much
as a feeling of, 'This is what I'm going to do.'
"I did sing commercially and sang some pop
and R&B and I loved it. I'd be in groups when I was starting
out where we'd do restaurants and you'd do a whole variety of material.
But when I moved here and got to play with Tom Garvin in the mid-'80s,
that was with another commitment to sing only standards and only
involve myself with the repertoire and learning the repertoire.
It became very obvious to me that there was enough to learn there.
You could devote your whole life to this repertoire and never get
to the end."
Her next recording on her current contract with
the Chase Music Group label (CMG), to be released in the next two
months, is "Kelly Sings Christy," a tribute to the well-known
June Christy, who died in 1990. No doubt, we'll hear tunes from
that project at SOhO.
Though Christy's songbook was the source material
for the album, Kelly's interest in Christy as an influence on her
own music was off and on. "I went through a period where I
listened to her a lot. I met her, personally, and then I got this
bug to do a tribute record, but it was awhile ago."
The idea was revived after Kelly was asked to
sing the very charts written for Christy by Stan Kenton arranger
Pete Rugolo, at a "Jazz West Coast" event in Long Beach.
In effect, Kelly was a surrogate Christy on classic songs like "How
High the Moon" and "Something Cool," the title track
of Christy's most popular album.
Egged on by longtime friend and collaborator,
keyboardist and arranger Tom Garvin, Kelly embarked on finally working
up the Christy tribute project. The album includes three songs from
the 'Something Cool' album, including the title track, "Midnight
Sun" and "Lonely House," all sung with Kelly's typically
"I think the arrangements are quite good,
and that sets it apart. Tom Garvin is one of the great writers here,
and he did all the arranging. He and I produced the record together
and picked the musicians. He wrote these exquisite charts. A lot
of it's real simple, but it sounds real big, like the three alto
flutes on 'Something Cool' and it sounds like a whole orchestra.
I still can't figure out why.
"æ'Lazy Afternoon,' we did a real
different treatment on. The big ballads we left alone, like 'Something
Cool.' Other than doing it in a fresh way, we didn't want to do
too much to that. You might wreck it if you did too much to it.
For 'It's a Most Unusual Day,' Tom wrote a chart where it modulates
every eight bars, which was cool. He wrote harmonies for the horns
that were sort of clashy and edgy, to fit in a certain way to approach
the lyrical content."
In citing singers who have had a strong impact
on her, Kelly points to Carmen MacRae and Billie Holiday, whose
nickname "lady day" is even embedded in Kelly's e-mail
"In some ways, there's that direct, vulnerable,
big throat that Billie Holiday has in common with June Christy,"
says Kelly. "The storytelling is No. 1 and everything else
falls underneath that in priority. I like when the story comes first,
even though I also like scatting and using the lyrics in an Anita
Oday style, where she would sing the lyrics, but it would be all
over the place, chopping syllables up in horn-like ways, so that
you aren't straying too far from the lyric itself, except you're
using pieces of it differently. I would say that Anita Oday is an
influence on me as much as anyone else.
"I also like Etta Jones for her swinging,
grooving thing. Any sort of swinging thing I have was directly given
to me by listening to her. I used to just wear holes in all her
records, especially ones like with Buster Williams on bass."
When thinking about the meteoric rise of young
Blue Note artist Norah Jones, who has triggered some amount of controversy
for her sound, much closer to pop than jazz, Kelly suggests it's
a matter of the young songstress being in the "right place
at the right time.
"There's nothing strange about that. When
you think about someone like Ella, she recorded dozens of pop albums.
June Christy did, too, some of it trite. Of course, in those days,
it was like being an actress on the MGM lot. You did a certain amount
of albums, like movies, and put them out and nobody really thought
much about it. But these days, it's different I think because we're
all so hungry in the jazz world to work and perform and there's
so little left of the old way of doing it."
Once upon a time, the country was liberally dotted
with jazz clubs, whereas the current club scene had dwindled. Likewise,
the public market share of jazz compared to other mass culture forms
of music, remains in the fringes. This could be a point of frustration
for any jazz musician trying to make their way in lean times, market-wise.
But, in jazz, passion runs as hot as its commercial potential tends
to remain cool. Whatever the money situation, jazz artists and listeners
tend to be lifers.
As Kelly opines, "not to dismiss these things
that are happening with these high-profile singers, but jazz, on
a more personal scale, is about discovery. I still think there's
an awful lot of motion in the world of jazz that we tend to overlook
because we try to define it in terms of sales, and it just doesn't
work in that way. It's not that kind of music. I look at it as a
much more dynamic process."
"My life is not a sales number, and my performances
aren't either. My life has beauty because I sing jazz. It's really
real for me."
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