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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
News-Press Correspondent

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 orbit.

"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 coiled cool.

"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 address.

"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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