Texas jazz doesn’t seem at all fathomable — until Austin, TX native Kellye Gray takes to the mic and transforms her favorite childhood songs like no other.
Gray ventures smoothly into Bossa nova, straight-ahead, shuffle blues, boogaloo, gospel, and ballad in hit songs made famous by Christopher Cross, Willie Nelson, Shake Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Roger Miller, and Mac Davis on her September 17th Grr8 Records release, And, They Call Us Cowboys. She does it as if these tribute songs belonged to her in the first place, with a Texas twang-swagger that’s simply mesmerizing.
Kellye Gray couldn’t have pulled off her Texas Music Project without this battalion of solid musicians from the Lone Star State: keyboardists Pamela York, Kevin Lovejoy, bassist Chris Maresh, drummer Kyle Thompson, percussionist Chris Lovejoy, organist Red Young, saxophonist John Mills, guitarist Jake Langley. But this album is clearly all about Gray and what she can do with her childhood soundtrack, which is a ton.
Throughout the album’s nine tunes, Gray sets a nostalgic, hazy mood, as if returning to the past, turning each page of mental images in her head, musing, celebrating, mourning. Instead of using pictures, she goes to music. “Deep In The West” by Shake Russell is a perfect snapshot of fond memories of Texas, and that thing which stirs her to the core, and it’s her best track. She sings the Waylon Jennings’ hit with her own fire, becoming one with the haunting cries of the horns that seem to travel restlessly over an unending dirt road, marked by tumbleweeds and a strange sense of peace in a big, wide world. The warmth of that fire is most evident, tempered by the savages of risking love and risking it all in the strain of her voice, as big and deep as the heart of Texas.
There’s a reason for the personal notes laden in each of the nine songs chosen for the album. It’s all personal for Gray. She’d been gigging solidly in the Bay area, then went over to L.A. in 1999 to see what she could do there before eventually coming back home to Austin and regrouping, after losing relatives and saying goodbye to a marriage. “I was dealing with a lot of death, and it was a heavy time for me,” she said. “In my recovery I was so frustrated creatively, and I wanted to be able to tie together these two very important parts of my heritage, my jazz sensibility and Texas. As I began to do the research, I became more and more overwhelmed with the titles I remembered. When it comes to songwriters and composers, there are so many choices, and I’m not even touching people like Stephen Stills, Ornette Coleman or Erykah Badu.”
She wasn’t even touching the late Janis Joplin, another Texas native, but the likeness is hard to ignore, especially in “Always On My Mind.” She completely turns this 1972 country classic upside down, killing it on her own until the last, Willie Nelson ballad is completely forgotten. It’s still a ballad under Gray’s care, but one with oomph. Nelson’s sounds almost too slow and limp in comparison, bordering on comatose, a dying man’s dying wish. Gray’s cover delivers the once-droning, desperate plea into a dramatically very much still alive, and taut come-hither, the way she tells a completely different, completely empowered story, driving the outcome.
The test of a brilliant cover specialist is what she can do with a substandard, embarrassing throwaway, as in Elvis’ attempt at depth with the social statement, “In The Ghetto.” Gray works a miracle on this decrepit, moth-eaten standard, completely changing the tempo, and the tone — from old-folks-home-meets-Up-With-People, to frank, matter-of-fact, and infinitely hip to today’s standards. Gray has an ease with her phrasing, right up there with the best, again conjuring up a matured, reincarnated Janis Joplin — innately knowing how to get to the heart of the matter with that twang, tension, and release. “Her phrasing is so natural and like an instrument,” remarked Gray’s pianist Pamela York. “It’s always fun. She can improvise just like the cats. And she knows what she wants. Some singers are looking to sound like Ella, or Sarah (Vaughan) or Diana Krall. Kellye’s got her own concept.”
Gray can cut through that layer cake of hers with Janis Joplin’s soul-splitting, gut-busting abandon, then pull back at the right time, tugging at emotional tension like stray threads. “If I Needed You” is her jazz ticket. Townes Van Zandt’s 1972, hot country single gives this singer all the room she needs to breath new life in the gathered spaces, which she does with the tenderness and fragility of a veteran Broadway dancer taking the final act by storm, peering into and behind the intimate jazz notes of piano and soft drums. She doesn’t have to show off voluminous, rushed notes in some impossible jazz standard. She just lets her voice flow, moving in real time to whatever moves her.
Gray and her band recorded the album as live as live can be. Each musician laying down a track without benefit of looking at the others. Very little over-dubs for the fusion stuff. That’s her, riffing naturally on “Dang Me,” as natural as can be, going low, going high, and bridging whatever gap people believe exists between Texas country and jazz.
Texas jazz? Kellye Gray just did that.
Review first appeared in Examiner Oct. 14, 2013.