Kellye Gray has reissued her 1989 debut recording “Standards in Gray” in a double disc package with her current release, titled “Rendering.” It isn’t immediately obvious that there are two CDs in the package. After I listened to “Rendering” and before I’d had a chance to dig into the one sheet from her publicist, I had to be told by her friend and fan the vocalist Jeffrey Gimble that the earlier disc is tucked into the side pocket – what a nice surprise.
It takes moxie to display side by side the natural changes in the human voice that evolve over a 26 year career. The good news here is that her 1989 debut is such a strong record in its own right. It isn’t so much that she has improved over the years, because she was solid to begin with. What is interesting is the added heft and authority of her voice, the self assured freedom in her approach that only life experience can impart.
In 1989’s “Standards in Gray” she recorded the Billie Holiday torcher “Don’t Explain.” In this recording it is immediately clear that she is a superior vocalist, with a full bodied tone and a mellifluous way with melodic variation. On “Rendering” when Gray bends the phrase “don’t explain” right out of the gate, we are hearing a singer who isn’t interpreting a classic so much as inhabiting it.
There are four other songs that are represented on both discs – Clare Fischer’s, “Morning,” “How Insensitive” by Jobim, and the standard anthems “How Long Has This Been Going On” and “Good Morning Heartache.” I will focus my remarks on the current release, with an occasional comment comparing the two.
On “Rendering” she keeps the first two tracks down tempo, where she is very secure, phrasing with ease and delivering often heard lyrics like she is the first one who ever uttered the words. Andre Hayward contributes fine trombone support and soloing on “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.” The standard unison hits from the band on the phrase “All I feel for me is misery” could be a cliché in the hands of a lesser artist. Here it makes perfect sense because Gray connects it so beautifully to the next thought. There is a through line. In her hands it all makes sense.
She lightens the vibe a bit with Clare Fischer’s “Morning.” She seems to know that with Fischer it isn’t necessary to reimagine what already works, and keeps the approach straight forward, generously letting her backing musicians stretch out with good natured, sunny solos and relying on her own natural talent to illuminate the lyrics.
“Out Blows Me,” an original by Gray, is a lilting waltz with a pleasing angularity. Halfway through, the phrase “Waiting to be free, waiting for the breeze” goes from brassy to soft, displaying remarkable sonic and emotional control.
“A Time for Love” is done as a duo with Pamela York on piano. Like all skilled accompanists, York is supportive and spare, keeping the singer out front and giving her plenty of space.
Another original by Gray, “God You Make Me Wonder,” a rolling samba, employs some effective unison vocal and instrumental lines, displaying fine arranging by Gray in tandem with Wayne Wallace.
On “How Long Has This Been Going On?” she has the audacity to speak/sing the phrase “Like I could melt….” It’s a choice that feels spontaneous, indicative of the kind of free form expressiveness that enlivens this entire record.
She elevates Jobim’s “How Insensitive” with Norman Gimbel’s English lyrics from the pretty, pale Chopin inspired lament it so often is, to a soaring indictment, an accusation that is astonishing in its dramatic impact. The raw honesty of her voice is compelling, almost painful at times. It is not surprising that this was not something she was able to achieve at this level when she first recorded it in 1989, although her interpretation succeeded on its own terms then.
Both records close out with “Good Morning Heartache.” I hear just a bit of Gray channeling Billie Holiday in the opening phrases in 1989, and at times she seems to be paying homage to the rounded purity of Betty Carter. This is not a bad thing, although it feels a tiny bit studied. Contrast that version with the unselfconscious way she launches into the current version and you have the essence of this woman’s musical journey. Now she is telling the story she has lived.
This remarkable two disc set shows that Kellye Gray is a singer who from the beginning possessed an intense, innate musicality, a superior vocal instrument and the intelligence to interpret lyrics. At times her voice shimmers with quiet subtlety, at times she delivers a throaty howl, at times she spins out burnished, long horn like tones, and when her emotion dictates she is not afraid to sound rough around the edges and gritty. Her tone is sure, and her delivery always first and foremost serves the narrative. She was an arrestingly gifted singer in 1989. Now instead of being a student of the genre, she owns it.
Piano, Pamela York
Bass, David Craig
Drums, Sebastian Whittaker
Saxophone, Warren Sneed
Trombone, Andre Hayward
Engineer, Andy Bradley
Mixing, Erich Avinger
Arrangements, Kellye Gray and Wayne Wallace
Recorded at Wire Road Studios, Houston, Texas in 2015