Friday evening in Dvorak Hall at Doudna Fine Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University in conjunction with the 54th Annual EIU Jazz Festival, Grace Kelly, a prominent saxophone player, entertained an admiring audience. This beautiful artist is only 20 years old, has her own band, has performed in more than 500 concerts around the world, and was here in central Illinois.
The stage was set for the evening with jazzy lighting. Blue notes were imaged on the black back curtain overlooking a set designed just for jazz musicians. There were black boxes with blue notes as well as black boxes with a white silhouette of Old Main directly in front of the musicians.
The EIU Jazz Ensemble led by Director Sam Fagaly started with “Jeannine” by American jazz composer, Duke Pearson (1932-1980). This particular piece was arranged by Robert Woods. “Jeannine” was an old favorite of the 1960s and brought back some fond musical moments.
Next was “Frankie & Johnnie” by Hughie Cannon (1877-1912). This song was based on a true story out of St. Louis where a 20-year-old girl shot and killed her 17-year old lover for messing around with another woman. But then — there are other arrangements and compositions of this number based on a similar scene of love, revenge, and murder from other areas of the USA. History does seem to repeat itself in real life as well as in song. I remember sitting in a room stuffed with fellow-student musicians and singing “Frankie & Johnnie” in the early 1960s at Eastern Illinois University late at night after a band competition clinic and festival. It could have been an early Jazz Festival.
This evening there were delightful solos by David Perez Delgado, saxophone; Donny de la Rosa, trumpet; Aaron Eckert, trombone; Dan Hoffmann, piano; Steve Kaiser, guitar; Nick Tucker, bass; and Kyle Swan, drums. It is fun getting to know the student musicians through their music. Also performing on saxophone were: Jaymee Findlay, Matt Dennison, Rose Cloud, and Kim Mathews. On trumpet: Evan Fowler, Scott Wilkinson, and Michael Eckardt. On trombone were Royce Harrington-Turner, Andy Ambrose, and Bill Mitchell. Their performance was enthusiastically jazzy.
Grace Kelly joined the EIU Jazz Ensemble with “St. Thomas” by Sonny Rollins (arr. Michael Philip Mossman); “My Foolish Heart” by Ned Washington and Victor Young (arr. Dave Rivello); and “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” by Oscar Hammerstein II and Sigmund Romberg (arr. Dave Wolpe). Director Fagaly said that this combination of the jazz ensemble and Grace Kelly had a short rehearsal in the afternoon after an eight hour drive from Detroit by Grace. They blended together as if they had been rehearsing together for a long time.
After intermission Director Fagaly introduced Drummer Kyle Swan as the recipient of the Brian Reed Jazz Scholarship.
The Grace Kelly Quintet finished the evening with Grace on saxophone and vocals, Jason Palmer, trumpet; Evan Gregor, bass; Ross Pederson, drums; and Pete McCann, guitar.
Kelly was beautiful in a black, red, and gold sequined, off the left shoulder, long top and black tights. The layered colors sparkled in the stage lighting. She wore silver short-topped boots. This gifted and creative musician composed the music and wrote the lyrics of many of the selections she sang or played this evening. She has been playing saxophone since age 10 and recently graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music at age 19. She taught workshops at Berklee last year. I promised myself I wouldn’t use “Wow” as a description but this artist is just a youngster who has achieved success as a composer, musician, performer, and teacher. “Wow!”
The Grace Kelly Quintet started with “My Foolish Heart” which was followed with “The Way You Look Tonight.” Jason Palmer on trumpet was wonderful.
“Flying Fish,” composed by Grace had a New Orleans flavor. Another composition by Grace was “Eggshells.” Grace composed this at a time in her life when she felt like she was walking on eggshells. Some of the lyrics were: “I need to know do you want to walk without me. I can’t walk this road alone. I’m tired of dancing over eggshells.”
“Bye, Bye Blackbird” published in 1926 by Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon, arranged by Kelly, featured a meticulous bass solo by Evan Gregor. Then Kelly started singing a song about coming to Charleston, being on stage with the spotlight. “Would you please turn it down so I can see the audience,” she sang. It was turned down and, in addition, the house lights were turned on to the delight of the audience — and Kelly. She sang about where she had been and where she would be touring. It was a fun improvisation. Then finished “Bye, Bye Blackbird” with audience participation.
The “Autumn Song” composed by Kelly was beautiful with the guitar making sounds like falling leaves. “Please Don’t Box Me In” was a plea to “Don’t tell me who I am.” “Around Midnight” was cool and dark with the bass and Kelly’s saxophone singing.
“Night Time Star” was written for Kelly’s ex-boyfriend. “I still like the song,” Grace quipped. “Searching for Peace” was another composition with a story. “If I don’t play it — no one will,” Kelly told us.
She ended the concert with George Gershwin’s aria, “Summertime,” a much-loved number from “Porgy and Bess.”
Saturday was going to be a full day for the saxophonist as she will be giving clinics to jazz students in the area. There were 28 middle and high school bands listed in the program that are attending the Jazz Festival Competition and Clinics on Saturday. This will be a top-notch learning experience for our local students.
The audience was appreciative of the energy and love of jazz that Grace Kelly and the Quintet shared with them.
Carolyn Stephens of Charleston is an arts enthusiast and reviewer-at-large for the Journal Gazette/Times-Courier. Contact her at email@example.com.