Jazz saxophonist and vocalist Grace Kelly recorded her debut album Dreamin’ in 2004 at the remarkably young age of twelve. Now eighteen, Kelly has released her sixth album, Man With the Hat, sharing billing with veteran sax man Phil Woods. The album’s title was inspired by the first time Kelly played with Woods. The elder musician was so taken by the young musician’s playing, he literally took his hat off and presented it to her. The album opens with the title track, composed by Kelly as a tribute to the 80 year old alto player.
The alto duo harmonize on the head of that swinging title tune, setting up a relaxed but authoritative forty minutes of straight-ahead jazz. Woods’ own “Love Song” allows he and Kelly to stretch out on a serene Latin ballad. Woods is particularly expressive during his darkly romantic solo. Kelly gives her horn a rest, instead singing “People Time,” Benny Carter’s melody with lyrics by Deborah Pearl. Her unaffected vocal is ably supported by Woods’ rich accompaniment. The third and final pairing of the two altos is another slow, sultry number, Billy Strayhorn’s “Ballad For Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus-Eaters.”
A trio of expressive musicians support Kelly and Woods. Monty Alexander handles piano duties, while the rhythm section is Evan Gregor on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums. Cole Porter’s classic “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is singled out for a sparse arrangement, played as a duet between Kelly’s alto and Gregor’s sympathetic bass. It’s a nice feature for Gregor, expertly employing a bow for his upright. The result, though the album’s briefest track, is a distinctively hypnotic bit of introspection.
The remaining two tunes are features primarily for Kelly, without participation from Woods. “Gone” is a collaborative composition by Kelly and David Greenberg. It’s the second of Kelly’s vocal features, unfortunately lacking an especially strong melody. Pianist Alexander adds some tasty Rhodes and melodica noodling to the mix, which adds a distinctive quality to what is otherwise a weaker spot. Thankfully the closer, a jaunty arrangement of “The Way You Look Tonight,” is an album highlight. Alexander again deserves special recognition for his inventive piano work.
Man With the Horn is a low-intensity display of tasteful jazz, featuring both a new voice and an old one. Much more a showcase for the still developing talents of Grace Kelly, the album presents her as an accomplished player with an exciting future. The presence of Phil Woods on four of the seven tracks adds the touch of a seasoned veteran. It adds up to an album worth hearing.