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The next name in jazz? Sax player and singer Grace Kelly may well be it

Rising jazz star Grace Kelly

James Korn

A respected veteran Boston jazz musician recently joked that everyone in that city’s rich music scene hates saxophone player and singer Grace Kelly because she’s so good at so many things so young.

Told this, with extra stress given on the tongue-in-cheek nature of the remark, Kelly giggled.

Well, she is barely out of her teens — that whole “so young” part. But the Boston native is poised on the threshold of becoming a bona fide big deal, already mentioned in the same breath with such genre-crossing young stars as Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper, leaders of a new jazz generation — that whole “so good at so many things” part.

“It really flatters me!” says the musician, who’s appearing Monday at the tiny Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, perhaps a last chance to see her in such an intimate setting. “It makes me giggle.”

She pauses.

“I hope nobody really hates me!”

Well, no, they don’t. But it’s completely understandable that there might be some envy among her home-town colleagues. Though just 20 and graduated from Berklee College of Music just a year ago, she’s already had a remarkable career.

She counts not one but two post-bop sax titans as mentors and collaborators: Lee Konitz, her teacher since she was 13, teamed with her for the 2008 album GraceFullLee, while Phil Woods and Lee co-fronted an all-star band for the 2011 album Man With the Hat and a European tour. (A video below shows Woods impressed with Kelly when she was just 14.) In 2007 she was a special guest artist with conductor Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops, performing her own “Every Road I Walked” in her own arrangement for the orchestra. At 16 she had a three-night stand as featured guest with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, impressing musical director Wynton Marsalis to the extent that he brought her along with the ensemble to play at Barack Obama’s first Inauguration Celebration. 

She’s performed with Harry Connick Jr., Dave Brubeck, Jamie Cullum, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Esperanza Spalding, among other stars, and of late has done regular jazz-gospel collaborations with pianist George Russell Jr. (see video below). And her accolades include being voted Boston’s best jazz artist for four straight years in the FNX/Phoenix Music Poll, getting the ASCAP Foundation’s Young Jazz Composers Award in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011,  taking Jazz Artist of the Year honors at the Boston Music Awards in 2008 and 2010, and being the youngest person ever named in the Downbeat Critics Poll when she was named one of the magazine’s Alto Saxophone Rising Stars in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. 

And she’s made eight — yes eight — albums, one a year since she was 12, two years after she’d settled on sax following less-satisfactory flirtations with piano (starting when she was 6) and clarinet. And, oh yeah, she’s got that marquee-ready name.  (It’s real. She was born Grace Chung; Kelly came from her stepfather.)

“But I don’t really think of myself like that,” she says, musing about being the object of envy. “I just think of myself as a really passionate person who’s fallen into music.”

Okay, see, saying you just fell into all of that is not really going to help with that resentment thing, joking or otherwise, that might come from others. 

The latest album, Live at Scullers, which comes out Feb. 5, serves as a solid summary of what she’s accomplished thus far, showcasing not just her sax prowess, but her vocal and growing songwriting skills in the club where she first encountered jazz as a grade-schooler accompanying her parents. 

The album also sounds like a pause, a palate-cleanser, before a launch into a new phase — one that holds high promise for full-fledged stardom. She cites the opening song on her album as a mission statement for where she goes from here. The title: “Please Don’t Box Me In.”

“That’s where I am now, constantly working on new things, trying to find a voice,” she says. “The most interesting thing for a future is thinking about how jazz is going to cross over to a younger generation for me. I’ve been playing for a lot of older audiences, which is great. but where’s my peer group?”

Her jazz, she says, is informed by her love for distinctive pop artists, from the Beatles to Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire to Maroon 5 and John Mayer. And she’s encouraged by the great success, both artistically and commercially, of the genre-busting Spalding (“She’s a friend and what she’s doing is fantastic”) and Glasper.

“That’s the new wave of things,” she says. “Not that I’m trying to follow a wave. It’s just honestly where my heart lies. I listen to the radio. I like what’s on the radio. And at the same time I love jazz.”

The Altadena show not only previews her next musical moves, but also location move, as she’s getting ready to call L.A. home. She’s fallen in love with the area from previous visits, and two producers here — Stewart Levine (Lionel Richie, Joe Cocker, B.B. King) and David Was (Rickie Lee Jones, k.d. lang, Roy Orbison) of the band Was (Not Was) — are planning to work with her. 

 Meanwhile, she’s also gaining some serious world experience that will help expand her horizons as a writer and artist. She spent much of December on a trip sponsored by the U.S. State Department that sent her to Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands. That was followed by a stop in San Francisco to be in a documentary about another iconic mentor, Frank Morgan, with a side trip to perform at San Quentin prison. 

The visit to the Comoros Islands, off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, made a particular impression.

“They didn’t know anything about jazz there,” she says. “They know who Adele and Katy Perry are, but no one knows Louis Armstrong. I worked with musicians there, got to go to orphanages and schools and play for kids. A lot of these young kids had never seen a saxophone. I’d play the low notes and they giggled.”

See? It’s catching.

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