It's been a long time -- 14 years, in fact -- since Kellye Gray spent her nights singing at the Blue Moon. Back then the club was the "other" jazz joint in town, and Gray, who had tried her hand at both folk singing and stand-up comedy, was the new face on the jazz scene. Gray's smooth style and versatile vocals -- she cites as influences not only Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter but also Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin -- were drawing big crowds, and she enjoyed an enthusiastic, loyal following.
Now the Blue Moon is gone and Gray is a circuit vet with a couple of CDs to her credit, but Houston fans haven't lost any of their enthusiasm for the singer. So when Gray started looking for a place to do a couple of live recording sessions for an upcoming CD, Houston seemed a good choice.
It was saxophonist Kirk Whalum who first brought the Dallas native to town. She was fronting the KGB (Kellye Gray Band) on Austin's Sixth Street, introducing college kids to a sophisticated style of jazz at a time when Whalum was just starting to headline. During a jam session in Houston, Whalum called Gray up on stage. She let loose, and the crowd, like Whalum, loved her.
Her success that night prompted Gray to relocate to Houston, where she landed a regular gig at the Blue Moon and a deal with Justice Records. Her first release on the label, Standards in Gray, cracked the top 20 on the jazz charts and won both Gray and Justice national attention. But despite good sales and critical acclaim, Gray fell out with Justice chief Randall Jamail and left the label. She then moved to San Francisco and launched regular U.S. and European tours.
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She spent the next couple of years playing the West Coast but kept her Texas ties strong by making occasional stops in Houston. She did come back to town long enough to record her second CD, Tomato Kiss, with a local all-star lineup including trumpet player Dennis Dotson, saxophonist Warren Snead, drummer Sebastian Whittaker and the late Dave Catney on piano.
Back on the West Coast she kept busy playing to devoted crowds and recording (Piano for All Seasons on Clarity and Funnjazz on Man on the Street). She was working on a couple of projects when an unexpected move back to Austin interrupted her plans, shelving the release of some cleaned-up bootleg recordings of her early Texas performances and new sessions with pianist Shelly Berg.
With those projects on hold, Gray pushed ahead the recording of Kellye Gray Live!, even though no record label is signed on for the production. Erich Avinger, Brennen Nase and Dennis Durrick will be joining Gray for the performances at Ovations. Like Kirk Whalum did a few years back, she'll also be introducing a new talent to local audiences when pianist Pamela York steps onto a Houston stage for the first time.
And let's hope that Gray will start returning for her ovations more than once in a blue moon.
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