Kathleen Grace opens her most recent album, Songbird, with the early Beatles hit, “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” done up as a cool, suave Brazilian samba.
“Originally standards were the popular music of the day,” she said in a telephone conversation from her home in California. “The challenge is to find contemporary examples that you can add more complicated harmonies to, or different arrangement concepts to, that can keep jazz moving forward.”
Grace, who kicks off a weeklong east coast tour at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts Friday night, is in the vanguard of a small but exciting movement of young jazz singers who are, in her words, stepping “outside the box of the American Songbook into the world of original music.”
She credits a meeting with jazz great Nancy Wilson for pointing her in that direction:
“I had a chance to go to an open rehearsal with some other vocalists and talk to her. She said, ‘Do you have any questions for me?’ And of course, nothing comes into my head! All I can ask is possibly the most inane question I could ask, ‘Well, what’s your favorite song?’ She looked at me and said, ‘Darlin’ I’ve recorded about 450 songs, and I can’t really have a favorite.’ She gave me a hard time and teased me about it, but then she named of a few songs. One of them was a song called ‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen.
“I hadn’t listened a great deal to Leonard Cohen. But I have to tell you that my exposure to that song and my exposure to his lyrics completely transformed my path because it got me into writing. How crazy is it that it took Nancy Wilson, who you don’t really associate with folk writing, to expose me to the song that led me to dive into his writing and revisit people who I hadn’t listened to since I began listening to jazz? It led me to revisit the lyrics of Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, even The Beatles, and it inspired me to think that maybe I could write in the context of the jazz that I do. At least half of the show [in Suffolk] will be original music.”
Though she’s been performing since she was a child in Tucson, Arizona (“I’m a total desert flower”), Kathleen Grace calls herself a “late bloomer” when it comes to jazz.
“Growing up,” she said, “I always sang, I was in the orchestra, I played the flute, I did all the shows. But I distinctly remember feeling, when I was in high school and younger, that my voice didn’t really fit the time I was living in. I’d see these old movies and think, ‘my voice kind of sounds like that; I wish I was in the ‘40s.’ At the time, I thought that my dad was a jazz fan, but now that I do jazz for a living I see that was not so much.
“It really happened when I moved to the Bay Area. I went to Tufts University in Boston and moved to Oakland right after I graduated college. I was on my way to becoming a Public Interest attorney and doing human rights work. But you could never get me away from music. While I was [at Tufts] I studied classical repertoire with some instructors who were from the New England Conservatory.
“I always loved performing and I loved music, but I came from a family that valued education. I did well in school, and music was lovely, but not really a path that was even considered.”
That all changed when she met Molly Holmes, a jazz educator who was assistant director for Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra.
“I started working with her,” Grace explained, “and the moment I was exposed to the music, I went, ‘This is it!’ It felt so right. I tend to be a little obsessive, so once I started, it happened really fast. I fundamentally changed the root of my life: the law school application to NYU was prepared but I didn’t put it in the mail. I quit my law kind of job and went and took as many music courses as I could. It was clear right away that jazz was not something you ‘sort of’ did; it was so astonishing because it was so beautifully challenging. And I never turned back.
“When I heard Tierney Sutton sing at Yoshi’s, I said I need to work with this person. She was doing something a little different. My voice isn’t a mockup of Sarah Vaughan or Ella, [and] Tierney was someone who didn’t sound like that but was doing really interesting things. That made me want to pull up roots and that’s why I moved to LA, to USC for grad school to work with her.”
She now teaches at Southern Cal herself, and her two CDs have begun to raise her profile beyond the boundaries of the west coast scene. A JazzTimes review of Songbird earlier this year called her “one of the most interesting newcomers on the American scene” and said “the airwaves should be full of Grace.” In my review of her first album, Sunrise, I named her “my pick for Best New Jazz Artist of 2005” and said she “personalizes a song with subtlety and nuance, intimately enveloping each song with her classically trained three-octave voice.”
Her five-piece band includes guitarist/songwriting collaborator Perry Smith and young piano dynamo Matt Politano. The Suffolk show serves as a prelude to their New York debut next week. It’s the latest stop on a musical journey that began for Kathleen Grace in those school bands back in Tucson.
“I worked my way up,” she said with an audible smile, “because flute is useless in the marching band—you can’t hear it. So I learned the tenor saxophone, then I learned the marching horns, and then I became drum major.”
With that background, I asked if she’d considered doing a recording on which she played all the instruments.
“I could,” she laughed, “if they were marching band charts! My parents would love it.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.