WWBW: How was your tour?
GK: It was a lot of fun. It was a month-long adventure all over Europe and it still went by pretty fast.
WWBW: How many playing dates over the course of the month?
GK: I think I probably only had three days off within the month. There were a few days that were just rehearsals because I did configurations with full orchestra, big band and my quartet. Some days were just rehearsals, but I was pretty busy.
WWBW: The orchestral pieces had to have been pretty well-planned.
GK: This promoter brought me to Germany. We’ve been talking for the last two years planning out…because he basically had me as an artist in residence and they commissioned an orchestral piece and all that so, yeah it was all set for a long time. The thing that had been added more recently was my quartet gigs. We ended up doing extra gigs in Italy since we were already going to be in Germany and those are what came through more last minute.
WWBW: Was there any European country that charmed you particularly?
GK: I fricking fell in love with Italy so much. It was my first time being a band leader presenting my music there and just between the people and the food and the culture, I felt so much warmth and it was really, I mean I have a band full of foodies and people who love coffee, so Italy was just incredible in that way.
WWBW: Growing up in greater Boston, you must have had a really early awareness of top level instrumentalism between the New England Conservatory, Boston Pops, the BSO and the Berklee School of Music. Did your family expose you to all of the great music in Boston?
GK: My mom’s side of the family has a lot of classical musicians. My aunt plays classical violin and went to Juilliard. And my grandma taught classical piano and I think I have an uncle in Korea I never met who was a famous opera singer, so my mom’s side of the family, totally. I’m the first person to venture into any non-classical realm, but I did grow up with amazing music around. My parents played everything from Broadway soundtracks to classical jazz, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, it was a very wide range of music.
So, when I was 6 years old, I was singing, acting, and dancing and actually very much into Broadway and started classical piano back when I was 6. I do consider myself extremely fortunate to have grown up in a city that has the New England Conservatory. From the age of 12, I was there every Saturday at the prep school and then I went to Berklee College of Music. Boston’s like a small New York, but it’s much more approachable and there’s some of the best musicians in the world there because they teach at these music schools.
WWBW: I noticed in your biographical sketch, at 12 years old, you made a record that had “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “In Walked Bud.” How does a 12-year-old get interested in “In Walked Bud?”
GK: My first CD was not supposed to be a full CD. It was just supposed to be a demo of three songs. My music teacher at the time, like back from public middle school – he’s been my music teacher since I was in kindergarten – happened to be a great jazz pianist and he was the one who said to me, “You should go into the studio and document what you’re doing because it’s pretty phenomenal.” And he said, “I’ll play piano on it.”
So that was the inspiration for going into the studio at all because I had no prior experience in that. Then, what started as a three-song demo just turned into let’s do this song, let’s do this song, let’s do this song. I’d been learning it in my saxophone lessons and “In Walked Bud” was one of the songs that I was learning at the time, so I was like let’s do that. Let’s do Wayne Shorter’s “One by One.” It was this great eclectic mix. Oh, I love, “Can’t Buy Me Love” and let’s do that.
WWBW: Your tenure with Jean Baptiste and Stay Human on late night with Colbert certainly put you in front of a lot of people. Was that a double-edged sword in any way or was it just 100% good?
GK: It was honestly 100% amazing. I’m still…I feel so grateful for all the new people who found me and my music through Stephen and Jean, and also just for the opportunity because you know Jean called me up and asked if I would do it and what started as a two-week stint turned into a six-month commitment. I learned to much within that time and as a musician, I looked up to him tremendously, so musically it was everything I could have asked for and more. It wasn’t just a pop gig where you’re like holding long notes. He was constantly pushing everybody’s boundaries and on national TV, which is pretty amazing.
WWBW: All of those talk show bands are so killer these days.
GK: Totally. It’s pretty cool. What I love about Jean’s music is he brings the quality of music and musicianship as well as also entertainment value. Having grown up in New Orleans, I think that’s all kind of wrapped up together in one, but you don’t really see that that often in the jazz world. So getting to learn from him in that way, I noticed my band-leading skills developed exponentially from exposure to Jean.
WWBW: How about a practice routine? Do you have a steady regimen for off days?
GK: I go back and forth between having a routine and really not having a routine. I think it depends what is coming up. This month-long European tour that I just did, I had to pull in so much new music I was spending all my extra practice time doing a ton of listening and learning repertoire.
But in general, I try to hit metronome stuff, scale and technique stuff, tonguing exercises to try to keep track of what yesterday’s BPM was and then push it slowly every day. So, that’s just general warm up and then every time I have a chunk of extra time continuing to expand and learn repertoire is really important. And then recently, I have been working with the metronome doing more rhythmic stuff so like groupings of 5 and 7 and try and get more comfortable with playing across the bar lines.
It’s easy to practice what you already know, so I’m trying to figure out ways in my practicing routine to integrate new rhythmic vocabulary that will continue to challenge me. So, that’s definitely this endless amount of rhythm exercises for sure. So, that’s been fun.
WWBW: I think that should be spray-painted on the wall: “It’s easy to practice what you already know.”
GK: Yeah, it’s amazing, right? Because you can spend hours just practicing what you already know.
WWBW: No kidding.
GK: And never really practicing your weaknesses. I think the most obvious way to really figure out what to practice is to record live performances and listen back. There’s nothing more telling than listening to myself and then being like ooh, okay, got to work on that tuning there. I got to work on this technical thing here.
WWBW: Now in listening to you speak just now, I notice a real focus on the rhythmic component of playing kind of bubbling to the surface.
WWBW: It’s so important, isn’t it? To really nail your time and your subdivisions of time.
GK: It is. It really is. I had a great teacher, Steve Wilson, and was studying with him for a short period of time and I remember he said to me, “Everybody is responsible for being the drummer.” Saxophone, trumpet, it doesn’t matter, you have to be leading the time and in the case that you’re playing with a drummer who doesn’t have good time, then you’re not relying on their bad timing because you know exactly where it is.
WWBW: Did you ever see the James Brown movie by chance? That biopic?
GK: Actually, I never saw it.
WWBW: At one point, the band is hanging around and James Brown says to the drummer, “What do you play?” And the drummer says, “I play drums.” And he says to Maceo, “What do you play?” And he says, “I play saxophone.” And he says, “No, you don’t. You play drums.” He talks to the guitar player. “What do you play?” Guitar. “No, you don’t. You play drums.”
GK: He’s right. Right. Oh, that’s great.
WWBW: Isn’t it?
GK: And actually, Maceo was one of the -- when I was trying to work on more rhythmic development, I think when I was like 12, one of my saxophone teachers said, “Check out a lot of Maceo Parker.” I never heard him before. I mean, I heard him with James Brown but I hadn’t heard his solo stuff because he was trying to get me to play on the off beats. So even when I’m teaching nowadays, I’m telling cats like go check out Maceo because it’s true, it’s like what he can do with a Pentatonic scale and like all of the variations and rhythms, it’s amazing. You see, he’s never going to run out of groove.
WWBW: Describe your relationship with the Berklee School of Music, if you would.
GK: I started at Berklee when I was 16 years old. They offered me a full scholarship to go there and I couldn’t refuse. So I got out of high school early and to me, it was always if I was going to go to music school, Berklee was the only school I applied for. It made such good sense to me because they have a program that goes from jazz to every musical style. The resources are incredible. I love the fact that there were so many international students. I played in a World Music Ensemble with incredible musicians from all around the world.
So, it just kind of felt like a good fit for me because I’ve always been interested in not just jazz but songwriting and singing. I took a Brazilian percussion class, so that was an incredible experience and I met some of my favorite professors there, Elon Malay, who is a brilliant pianist and had toured with Paul Simon and played in Phil Woods’ group. He was an amazing mentor. After school, he produced one of my pop singles and introduced me to record producer, Tommy LiPuma. And there was just kind of like person after person that was an amazing wealth of knowledge at the school.
I graduated when I was 19 and then I stuck around Boston for a couple years after that and they had me like teaching. I was in Guest Residency teaching for them which was really great fun and then I’ve been back. I even just got an email from them recently about coming to do something. So, it’s great. I mean, I think the thing I love about Berklee so much is that everywhere I go around the world, I meet a musician who is somehow affiliated with the school, so it’s an incredible network.
WWBW: How about equipment? What’s your alto?
GK: I play a Yamaha Preston B Bronze horn. It’s an 82Z. That’s the series. One of my mentors, the great late Phil Woods, he was the first one who really told me about the Yamaha horns. They play with so much ease. It’s pretty incredible. I had a lot of different saxophone companies wanting me to play their horns. But it was really important to me that it wasn’t for the endorsement, it was that I loved the horn. My mouthpiece is a Vandoren A8S+. That’s the mouthpiece. And then Optimum ligature.
WWBW: Vandoren reeds also?
GK: Yeah, Java Green box 2-1/2 reeds. I’ve been playing Vandoren for over 10 years and never thought about any other reeds and stuff. They’re very consistent with quality and great folks over there.
WWBW: Did you ever wander into the synthetic reeds at all?
GK: I think I tried half a synthetic reed at one point. I think it was the black ones. They were Rico Grand like years ago. I love the idea of synthetic reeds, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t get the sound that I am looking for. I know cats that do play them.
WWBW: How about tour cases since you’re doing all this traveling? Do you use the stock Yamaha case? There are some amazing custom cases these days.
GK: Cases. You know, I’m due to get a new case. I’ve been the same Protect case for literally like 12 years. I think it’s time to get a new case.
WWBW: Consider Bam and the Hiscocks are really good.
WWBW: Well, I’ve been listening to you lately. One recording I half expected not to enjoy as much as I did was your rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Just because it’s an overdone tune. It can really just sit there and croak if you don’t find that loneliness in the melody which you really have. Do you know Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s version of “Ain’t No Sunshine?”
GK: Oh, no.
WWBW: Oh, you got to check it out. He’s talking into the flute. He’s talking as he’s playing the melody and it’s so stark. It reminded me of that. You really got in touch with the melancholy that is built into that melody.
GK: Oh, thank you.
WWBW: I also found it ironic that your 10th CD release, not your 1st, not your 2nd is called Trying to Figure It Out. That’s funny.
GK: It’s a song that I had written and it was a deeply personal emotional song to me. I thought we should just title it that because the whole CD is supposed to be about this emotional journey unfolding and different snippets of my musical life over the last couple of years. I thought the title covered a wide range of things, so that’s kind of how it ended up sticking.
WWBW: Yeah, sometimes the answer is sitting there right in front of your face.
GK: And most of the time, it’s just a simple solution, right?
WWBW: I think we all have this fear of actually figuring it out because once you do, you know, what’s the point?
GK: Well, that’s true and a lot of people…I guess I didn’t think that deeply about the title of how it’s…there’s so many people who after it came out were like what do you mean you haven’t figured it out? I was like, “No, no. That’s the point.” The point is hopefully you never figure it out because that’s why we keep searching. In the music and all of that.
WWBW: It ain’t the destination. It’s the journey, baby. All right.
GK: Yes, exactly.
WWBW: You have a particular love for a musician that I have a particular love for and that’s Lee Konitz.
WWBW: How did you come to find him and associate with him?
GK: Well you what, I first started saxophone lessons, I remember one of the players that my teacher said check out was Lee Konitz so I think I was 11 years old and listening to all this amazing music with Lee and Warne Marsh because it was so beyond what I knew. I don’t think I quite understood it, but I was super fascinated by it and so I started listening to a lot more of his music and my parents knew that he was a big inspiration to me on saxophone.
So, I remember when I was like 13 years old, I was away in Maine at summer camp and my parents wrote to me and they said that we went to see Lee Konitz in New York and we know you love him. We talked to him afterwards and I’m like what? And then I guess my dad asked him, “Do you teach lessons?” Like it was going to be a surprise for me and Lee was like no, I don’t.
But Lee actually gave my dad his number and said but call me when you’re in New York next. I’d love to meet Grace because I think he mentioned that I was studying with Jerry Bergonzi and it just kind of like perked his ears.
Then the next time we were in the city, we called him and he invited me to his apartment and I was so nervous and you know, we talked and we played and after the lesson, I said can I get a photo? And I figured that would be it. And then he said to me every time you are in the city, I want you to call me and let’s get together and chat and so we just continued to build a relationship and you know shortly after we met, he invited me to play at the Jazz Free with him and then when I was 16, we made a record together called, “Gracefully.”
WWBW: Oh, that’s great.
GK: Yeah, he’s one of the most authentic improvisers that I’ve ever heard and every time I see him live, it blows my mind because the melodies that he creates are so spontaneous and just beautiful.
WWBW: You know, I’m a writer and a musician and a much better writer than a musician. But I’m sure you know Lee Konitz’ association with the Beat Poets and so just the fact that his ear was awake to good poetic writing as having its own music really means a lot to me.
GK: Yeah and he’s such an open musician. It always amazed me how talk about never figuring it out. Just constantly wanting to check out music and talk and find out more.
WWBW: What else are you working on?
GK: I’ve developed a couple of web series because I think the way that a lot of people find out about artists and music in online. So, I started to do this series. One of them is Grace Kelly Pop-Ups. It comes out on my Facebook, a new video every Thursday and it’s up on YouTube and will be up on my website. It’s basically like I take my horn to every place that’s not the stage. Unusual places in my travels and documenting my travels and I do a 90-second clip of me playing a song that I’m inspired by. So, I recently did one called, “Riding a Gondola” in Venice, Italy playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I did one in Haiti in the water.
WWBW: Nice. So, you maintain this actively and very regularly?
GK: Yeah, the one in Haiti…the amazing thing is it’s starting to spread online on Facebook and got a million views and tons of shares and it’s been a really fabulous way for new people to find my music international friends, which is awesome and my hope is to play and record video in all of these places. I’ve done one on a Ferris wheel in Santa Monica and then I did a bunch in Germany and Italy.
My hope is that it gives people a feeling that they’re on the gondola with me and that I’m kind of serenading them. And there’s web series that have been launched. It’s called, “Go with Grace Kelly.” And it lives on You-Tube. It’s casual conversations with creatives. So, my first guest was Marcus Miller and we just sit down and we talk about creativity and where it comes from and then I interview the amazing comedian, Eliza Boudin, who was on Last Comic Standing, and then I’ve done talks with David Sanborn and Terrence Blanchard. They’re not all out yet. It’s also been a very inspiring series for me.
WWBW: Marcus Miller’s a great talker, huh?
GK: Oh my God, yes. He’s so inspired. He was such a joy to sit down with. We were together on the Blue Note Cruise recently so we did it there. I think you covered such great stuff today, Chris.
WWBW: I think we’re nicely wrapped up. Taker care, Grace Kelly!