Her sideman is a legend
For the alto sax prodigy, playing with Woods is a dream come true
Grace Kelly, the 18-year-old Brookline alto saxophone prodigy (not the late princess), has a favorite among the many stories Phil Woods told her over schnitzel as they toured Europe together for three weeks earlier this spring in support of their album “Man With the Hat.’’ It was March 1955, and Charlie Parker had just died. Woods and his friend Jackie McLean were saddened at the premature loss of their hero, of course, but as rising alto sax stars then in their mid-twenties, they also thought they recognized opportunity.
“They were saying to each other, ‘Yeah, man, maybe we can finally get some gigs,’ ’’ Kelly recalls Woods telling her. “That night they heard that this guy was in town, this new saxophone player. So him and Jackie McLean decided to go and check him out. And they walk into the club, and it’s Cannonball Adderley playing. And they look at each other, this is his words, not mine and they go, ‘Oh [expletive]. There go the gigs.’ ’’
A funny story but there’s more. Adderley, McLean, and Woods befriended one another like brothers as they entered the alto sax pantheon together. The moral, Kelly says Woods told her, is that jazz is “one of the only businesses where if you meet other players and they’re a higher level than you are, everyone welcomes each other.’’
Woods, 79, has surely rolled out the red carpet for Kelly. After she joined him onstage for the first time at age 14 at a Pittsfield jazz festival, Woods made a gift to her of his iconic black leather cap — the inspiration for the Kelly-penned title track of their CD. That someone of his stature would go on to record and tour as her sideman testifies to his unusually high regard for her. And he’ll be joining her for three more appearances within driving distance of Boston this summer, at the major jazz festivals in Montreal and Newport and, closer to home, on Cape Ann at Rockport’s year-old Shalin Liu Performance Center.
“Lee Konitz and I have championed her since we first became aware of her talents five or six years ago,’’ Woods e-mails in explanation. “As I insidiously infiltrate my eighth decade with 65 years of gigging under my now 44 belt, I am always looking for new voices and challenges. Playing with Grace gives me a new alto voice to ponder. I often think how Benny Carter would approve of Lee’s and my interest in this musical wonder. She writes, she sings, she plays piano and saxes, and she is beautiful. Oh! And another thing, she is a great leader, and I just want to be a sideman once in a while.’’
It seemed “a little weird sometimes’’ to be calling the shots for Woods, Kelly admits, but that’s how the two of them have worked.
“He said throughout all the tours, ‘Just tell me where I need to be, you call out all the tunes. I just want to play,’ ’’ Kelly recalls. Kelly called the tunes for the CD as well, she says, with “Phil e-mailing me and being like, ‘Hey, have you checked out this tune? This is a great one.’ That’s how I found Billy Strayhorn’s gem ‘Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus-Eaters.’ ’’
Kelly sings, impressively, on Benny Carter’s “People Time’’ and her own “Gone.’’ Her backing band on the disc includes another high-profile ringer, pianist Monty Alexander, Woods’s longtime drummer, Bill Goodwin, and her own quintet’s bassist, Evan Gregor. This summer, her quintet regulars Doug Johnson and Jordan Perlson will take over on piano and drums, respectively, with Jason Palmer added on trumpet.
This will be Kelly’s second performance at the spectacular new concert hall in Rockport, and she’s thrilled to be returning there with Woods. “The site looks right out to the water,’’ she enthuses. “The acoustics are unlike any other place I’ve been. It’s all brand-new wood, and they specifically designed it for this beautiful venue. And to be bringing one of my mentors, who I’ve been listening to since I was little — Phil Woods, who’s played with Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones — is a dream for me.’’
Bill Beuttler can be reached at email@example.com.