Concert Review: Grace Kelly at Exodus to Jazz

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Singer/saxophonist Grace Kelly took the stage at Hochstein Performance Hall Saturday night surrounded by three Clark Kents: Pete McCann on guitar; Evan Gregor, bass; and Jordan Perlson, drums. All three bespectacled men wore drab, everyday clothing, which served to focus most of the attention on Kelly in her chain-link miniskirt. She looked great, but it was a bit disconcerting to watch a beautiful 20-year-old woman who seemed to have the musical soul of a 1950’s hard-bop sax player. Let’s just say Hank Mobley never had to worry about straps falling down.

The Exodus To Jazz series, which had to cancel several concerts due to poor ticket sales just a few months ago, drew an enthusiastic audience of 426 for the Kelly show, its second-largest ever. Kelly gave patrons an excellent concert, mixing her saxophone prowess with jazz vocals and examples of her contemporary songwriting. The songwriting was the only uneven element, ranging from the beautifully composed “Eggshells” to the cliché-ridden “Don’t Box Me In.”

The good news is her new material is her best. “Autumn Song,” an instrumental meant to evoke leaves changing colors and falling from trees, actually kind of conjured up that image. A New Orleans-style blues march nicely captured the flavor of early jazz. And her ability to win over an audience with her playful personality has never been stronger.

Rochester jazz fans have had a rare opportunity with Kelly. She performed at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival in both 2010 and 2011, so many in the audience were seeing her for the third time in three-and-a-half years. We’ve watched as she’s grown from a teen-aged wunderkind into a formidable, mature saxophonist. Still, mixing in some sexy pop-star tropes (one of her main career role-models is crossover artist George Benson) creates some interesting dichotomies. For instance, when Kelly plays a particularly slithering run on her alto sax, she is also slithering.

Kelly mixed it up nicely throughout her sets, shifting between full-band instrumentals and vocal tunes. On her free-scatting rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” in which she riffed about how good it was to be back in Rochester, she was accompanied only by Gregor on bass. She also pared down the sound with a fine saxophone and bass version of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight.”

But the highlights of the night for me were two classics transformed by Kelly into irresistible funk. Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” received a gritty treatment punctuated by Kelly’s best solo flight of the night. The final tune, George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” sounded more like the “Theme From Shaft” due to McCann’s ubiquitous wah-wah guitar. But it somehow worked. By then all of the Clark Kents had made full transformations into musical supermen. McCann was especially versatile, ranging from Grant Green-style legato runs to Jimi Hendrix-like pyrotechnics. “Summertime” wasn’t actually the final tune, because a standing ovation brought Kelly back for a beautiful rendition of “Over The Rainbow.”

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