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Julie Kelly: Julie Kelly: Happy to Be

Jack Bowers By

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Julie Kelly is a talented singer whose talents are a fairly well-kept secret except on the West Coast, where she makes her home. Happy to Be is Kelly's eighth album, the first on Graham Carter's Colorado-based Jazzed Media label, and as has been her custom in the past, she chooses for the most part interesting songs that aren't heard nearly often enough. Compositions by Dave Frishberg, Bob Dorough, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Richard Rodney Bennett and even Phoebe Snow are here, hanging out alongside engaging themes by such lesser-known but no less able writers as Bill Peterson, Jim Tomlinson and Susan Marder. Kelly handles each one with care, paying close attention to mood, dynamics and articulation while interpreting lyrics in a straightforward manner that eschews needless embroidery.

Whether Kelly is a "jazz singer" is a matter of opinion. Even though she scats only briefly, and doesn't turn a lyric inside out like, say, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen McRae, she clearly knows how to swing, as she shows on Peterson's "Happy to Be," Dorough's "You're the Dangerous Type" or Thad Jones' "High in the Sky," and is rhythmically sharp as well. Perhaps Kelly's strongest bond to jazz, however, lies in her supporting cast, which embodies an A-list of Southern California's busiest and most accomplished sidemen. The rhythm section (Bill Cunliffe, piano; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Tom Warrington, bass; Joe La Barbera, drums; Walter Rodriguez, percussion) is beyond reproach, as is a front line comprised of trumpeters Clay Jenkins and Ron Stout, saxophonists Bob Sheppard and Kim Richmond, trombonist Bob McChesney and vibraphonist Nick Mancini.

Cunliffe, who plays synthesizer on several numbers, steps aside on Tomlinson's amiable "I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again" (lyric by Kazuo Ishiguro) in favor of John Proulx who duets with Kelly on his own arrangement of the tune. Proulx, whose style is reminiscent of the late Chet Baker, sings in a range so close to Kelly's that it's sometimes hard to tell who's who. That's not a problem elsewhere, as Kelly glides easily through a tantalizing melange of ingredients that begins with Snow's dreamy "Harpo's Blues" and continues through "Happy to Be" (written by Peterson and Inga Swearingin as a tribute to Bobby McFerrin), Frishberg's "Our Love Rolls On," Jobim's "Corcovado," Roger Kellaway's "I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before" (lyric by Marilyn and Alan Bergman), "The Blues According to Orpheus" (which Kelly co-wrote with Rich Eames, Jeff D'Angelo and David Hocker), Bennett's "I Never Went Away" and Marder's "For Joni," in addition to the songs already noted. When she's not singing, there are brief but persuasive solos by Cunliffe, Wilson, Sheppard, Jenkins, Stout, McChesney and LaBarbera.

Splendid singer, commendable teammates, unerring choice of material. They add up to a well-earned endorsement for Julie Kelly and Happy to Be.

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