Saxophonist Grace Kelly Performs at Phil Woods Memorial Concert in Pittsfield | Connecticut Public Radio
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Saxophonist Grace Kelly Performs at Phil Woods Memorial Concert in Pittsfield

May 11, 2016

It was one of those historic, passing-of-the-torch moments when the legendary Phil Woods, a monarch of the alto saxophone, took off his signature leather fisherman’s cap and, in a regally symbolic act of confirmation, placed it on the head of a worthy heir-apparent, the then 14-year-old alto prodigy, Grace Kelly.

Reportedly drawing some 150,000 views on YouTube, the 2006 clip showed Woods, a happily astonished grand Old Master crowning the wailing wunderkind after she soared through a sizzling, Bird-like solo on “I’ll Remember April” on-stage that year at the second annual Pittsfield CityJazz Festival.

“It was not lost on the audience that there was nearly a 60-year age span between the two, yet they jammed as if they had been performing together for years,” said Ed Bride, president of Berkshires Jazz Inc., presenter of the annual CityJazz Festival and the upcoming Woods memorial concert.    

“She played older than her age, he appeared much younger than his,” explained Bride of the spontaneous combustion ignited between the ultra-hip, modern jazz giant and the then unknown but fiery, fearless Massachusetts teen.   

Woods would later become a mentor, friend and collaborator with Kelly who, five years after the iconic hat-crowning scene, commemorated the grand gesture with an acclaimed CD whose title tune was an original called "Man With the Hat."

Woods, a Springfield native and NEA Jazz Master, who died last September at the age of 83, appeared on the album as Kelly’s special guest, contributing brilliantly as always.     

Now the tale of the talismanic hat -- a cap Kelly still often nostalgically wears on gigs -- comes full-circle as the young saxophonist returns to Pittsfield on Saturday, May 14, to perform in a memorial concert honoring Woods with a reunion of members of his celebrated quintet.

Standing in for her late mentor, Kelly, who turns 24 the next day on May 15, holds down the late master’s alto chair for the reassembled Woods Quintet.

The band’s splendid lineup of former Woodsmen features trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Bill Mays, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin. Downbeat time is 8:00 pm at Barrington Stage Co. at 30 Union Street in downtown Pittsfield.  

Along with the event’s high-caliber music comes a sentimental aura as well. It’s generated by both the famous chapeau-coronation as well as the mentor/protégé relationship between Woods and Kelly, who is now herself a celebrated, globe-trotting recording artist. Among her plum gigs, the millennial wizard plays woodwinds in Jon Batiste’s house band for "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert."

Grace Kelly.
Credit Taso Papadakis

Whether playing sophisticated jazz or sacred gospel, she displays amazing grace under pressure, even as an earthy, unholy, house-rocking blues and R&B player. Her ecumenical tastes embrace an expanding spectrum of contemporary pop, as on her new release, Trying to Figure It Out. On the variety-packed CD, she strides confidently into pop diva turf as a genre-crossing singer/songwriter with a writerly knack for narrative themes filled with feeling.

Along with Kelly’s fluent takes on such classic fare as “Amazing Grace,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “Smile,” there are emotion-packed, personally-rooted, pop-inspired originals. One original, “Blues for Harry Bosch,” was inspired by her appearance on the streaming Amazon original series, "Bosch." You see her grooving on alto at a Hollywood jazz club, a favorite haunt for the series’ anti-hero renegade, a stoic, convention-bending, jazz-loving L.A. homicide detective named Harry Bosch.

Kelly’s evolution from child marvel to adventurous adult artist is illuminated by her passion for contemporary sounds and zest for the zeitgeist. Yet, she’s not abandoning her deep jazz roots, even if the free-spirited adventurer loves to meld her poly-genre inspirations “into a pot, stir it up, to serve you some delicious Grace soup.”

     

Along with high-caliber modern jazz, the tribute concert also comes enveloped in an aura of sentiment, rooted in the lore of the hat homage and the endearing friendship, an enduring musical bond that bridged the six-decade generation gap between Woods and Kelly.

As Jill Goodwin, Woods’ wife and business manager of 40 years, recalled: “From the moment they stepped on stage in Pittsfield, and especially after he passed the torch by putting his cap on her head, their relationship grew. Phil was proud to be a part of "Man With the Hat," and they appeared together at major festivals around the world.

“Phil and Grace were in touch frequently, up to the day he died. Bringing together Phil’s group again will be a very special moment for all of us.” Tickets:  $35.00, $30.00 and $25.00. Information: berkshiresjazz.org. Box office: (413) 236-8888.

Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Willie Ruff.
Credit Courtesy of Donna Yoo / Yale School of Music

Conservatory Without Walls 

Yale School of Music’s Ellington Jazz Series celebrates its historic legacy with a screening this weekend of the jazz documentary, "Conservatory Without Walls, " which chronicles the once-in-a-lifetime gathering of 40 jazz legends at Yale in 1972, a convocation leading directly to the formation of the venerable series.

Show time is Friday, May 13, at 7:30 pm at Morse Recital Hall, 470 College Street, New Haven.

The 40-minute video features interviews with such legendary figures as Dizzy Gillespie. A classic clip shows series founder and artistic director, bassist Willie Ruff, jamming with Duke Ellington on piano.

After intermission, the remarkable eleven-year-old drummer Kojo Odu Roney performs in a trio led by his famous, saxophonist father, Antoine Roney. Tickets: $10.00, general, $5.00 students. Tickets: (203) 432-4158.     

Nolan’s Four-Star Nova

Russ Nolan.
Credit John Abbott

Saxophonist/composer Russ Nolan, a bold explorer of Latin rhythms and modern harmonies, celebrates the 4-star review Down Beat recently awarded his new album, Sanctuary from the Ordinary, on Friday, May 13, at 9:00 pm at 9th Note, 15 Bank Street in Stamford.

Recorded live at New Haven’s Firehouse 12, Nolan’s irrepressible CD, featuring his quartet, dances from a striking reworking of Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys,” which is keyed to bata drum rhythms, to an amusingly titled original, “Stravinsky’s Mambo,” merrily melding a 12-tone row piece with a mambo beat and a Bitches Brew-styled groove.

His torrid rhythmic imagination is stoked by everything from dancing the tango with his wife on their honeymoon in Buenos Aires to performing live at an empathetic, state-of-the-art jazz sanctuary like Firehouse 12. Information: (203) 504-8828.

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