Kellye Gray: Rendering

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Kellye Gray


June 21, 2017

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Rendering celebrates the 25th anniversary of Kellye Gray’s 1989 debut album, Standards in Gray, which is included in the 2-CD set. (The vocalist received ownership rights in 2015.) Both reflect a pristine, gut level approach to music and lyrics. Think Abbey Lincoln and Sarah Vaughan. I heard a taste of Bessie Smith on one cut. Still, the lady is very much herself. Palpable four-octave-range vocals emanate from someplace soulful and physically deep, often with instrumental emulation. Phrasing is distinctive, theatrical without going over the top. Gray kind of audibly sculpts her songs. Ms. Gray is a find.

The more recent collection, a brighter, cleaner sound, was recorded “…with only soundtrack read through, we hit the downbeat. Floor and room monitors. No headphones. One-take. No stopping.” A long Miles Davis number on the first disc is one of several not reinterpreted in favor of selections that currently mean more to the performer, including two of her own composition.

“How Long Has This Been Going On?” (George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin), on both discs, features marvelous, conversational phrasing. The first rendition detectably kneads lyrics, sometimes instinctively slurring. Vocal is throaty. Sax is round-edged, doleful. The second is more sophisticated, literally less low.  

On Standards, “How Insensitive” (Antonio Carlos Jobim/Norman Gimbel/Vincius de Moraes), despite its iconic, undulating rhythm, arrives as a pithy cry in the night. Gray’s voice is hypnotic. The contemporary version, like the previous call-out, is more savvy, evoking internal dialogue, attempting to dispel memories. Lush arrangement soothes the mournful lyric.

“Good Morning Heartache” (Irene Higginbotham/Ervin Drake/Dan Fisher) blankets with injury in the initial recording. Ruminating piano raises an eyebrow. Rendering wallows less. Though sorrow abides, the wrench is gone. Octaves slip/slide. Sax is an eloquent sigh.

Highlights of Standards in Gray also include Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You,” emerging with the force of the vocal lasso-whipped out, slowly hauled in. Guitar enunciates with pristine clarity. Punctuating beat feels like burlesque. Similar sensibilities sashay in with “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” on Rendering. It’s as if Gray were physically moving the song. This version takes no guff. Stalled vibrato and sharp enunciation jerk and pierce. This is the Bessie Smith to Janis Joplin parentheses.

Rendering offers a gorgeous, satiny “A Time for Love” (Johnny Mandel/Paul Francis Webster), and the vocalist’s own “God You Make Me Wonder,” which issues forth in hip Morse Code-like phrasing “…You’re a heartless, careless lover/What can one do about you?!..” she sings with frustrated irony. Fluid trombone dances with piano.

This is one helluva musician. A grand listen on so many levels. It’s my intention to track down earlier albums/CDs.

Arranged by Kellye Gray or Wayne Wallace & Kellye Gray.

Musicians on Rendering: Pamela York (piano), David Craig (bass), Sebastian Whittaker (drums), Warren Sneed (saxophone), and Andre Hayward (trombone).

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.