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Forget your daddy's jazz; young sax player mixing it up at Tucson Jazz Fest

Forget your daddy's jazz; young sax player mixing it up at Tucson Jazz Fest

When you consider her energy, along with her sizable vocal talents, you begin to understand the praise being lavished on saxophonist Grace Kelly.

If your idea of jazz is a couple of old guys playing great riffs on horns or well-worn guitars, Grace Kelly is about to blow your mind.

The 27-year-old Massachusetts native who picked up a saxophone at 10 and started playing professionally at 12 mixes a little funk, classic rock and EDM in her jazz.

Hit play on her Spotify and you’ll get everything from Miles Davis to EDM producer Marshmello with a little Stan Getz — her mom’s fave — for good measure.

“My love of music is quite a wide range,” said Kelly, who co-headlines a Tucson Jazz Festival concert at Rialto Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 12, with jazz trombonist and vocalist Aubrey Logan.

At her concert Sunday, don’t be surprised if she covers classic jazz hits interspersed with her original songs including the pop song “Feels Like Home,” which earned her $20,000 in the 2019 John Lennon Songwriting contest’s Song of the Year Award.

Songwriting has become such a big part of her musical career that she is often described as a jazz saxophonist/singer-songwriter.

“It’s been really cool to watch this thing that I enjoy so much … take a front seat in my career,” she said during a phone call from California on Tuesday.

“I don’t really think in genres. Whatever song I’m writing, I try to see how can I best serve the music and the performance.”

Her show at the Rialto is her first in Tucson, she thinks. She criss-crosses the country so often that she sometimes forgets where she has been. But if past live shows and her tenure with “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” house band Stay Human are any proof, her performance will go down as one of the 2020 Tucson Jazz Festival highlights.

Folks at the Rialto will no doubt be talking about her energy — she rarely stands in the same spot on stage for very long — and the way her saxophone sounds like a human voice, full of emotion and range, from soaring heights that will have you holding your breath to see where she takes it to sublime, tender lows that will tug at your heart and settle in your soul. When you add in her sizable vocal talents, you begin to understand the praise being lavished on her by music critics and fans including San Francisco’s The Bay Bridge music blog, which said she had “beautiful vocals, both tender and powerful.”

Her show Sunday will draw a bit from the standard jazz sax repertoire, but will focus mostly on her recordings — nearly two dozen albums released on her own PAZZ Productions label including her latest, 2018’s “Go Time.”

She also tosses in a few covers that criss-cross genres from a sax-vocal turn at Van Morrison’s bluesy “Crazy Love” to a jazzy take on “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones.

“I want this to be an experience for me and for the audience,” Kelly said. “It’s a connection … Let’s just have folks in the audience feel something so deeply and that’s up to them whether it’s (crying or laughing). We’re just going through a whole experience together.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

Cathalena has covered music for the Star for the past 20 years. She's a graduate of Arizona State University has worked at Sedona Red Rock News, Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, New York; and USA Today.

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