Happy to Be…

Dan Bilawsky, All About Jazz 
August 23, 2014

Over the past thirty years, vocalist Julie Kelly has established and cemented her sterling reputation via seven highly praised albums. Her eighth, a beauty in every way, is likely to garner her some more rave reviews.

After tackling a diverse program with able support from pianist Mike Wofford on Everything I Love (Chase Music Group, 2006), and grafting her own personality onto cool school vocalist June Christy's work with some help from pianist-arranger Tom Garvin on Kelly Sings Christy: Thou Swell (Chase Music Group, 2002), Kelly reunites with pianist Bill Cunliffe for this trip through lesser-known and highly agreeable material.

Cunliffe manned the piano and put the arrangements together for Kelly's Stories To Tell (Chase Music Group, 1994) and Into The Light (Chase Music Group, 2001), so both come to this project with a strong connection already firmly in place. Here, Cunliffe provides sensitive support when needed, kicks things up a few notches when the music calls for it, and effortlessly locks in with the two veteran rhythm men who were on board with him for the aforementioned albums—bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Together, these three establish relaxed and swinging scenarios ("Harpo's Blues"), light a fire under Kelly and the rest ("You're The Dangerous Type"), sway along with middleweight ("Corcovado") and lightweight ("I Never Went Away") bossa nova grooves, and bop along in high-spirited fashion ("High In The Sky"). Man-of-all-moods guitarist Anthony Wilson, vibraphonist Nick Mancini, and a collection of accomplished horn players also make notable contributions throughout.

While Kelly's companions help to set the scenes, it's the singer who's left to work within them. Yes, most of the aforementioned players get to step out and solo at one time or another, but all eyes remain on this sublime vocalist throughout. Her supple and well-trained pipes can match wits with horns, effortlessly traveling the curves and contours of this music, but she never fails to also pay great attention to the meaning of lyrics and the emotional direction of a song: "Our Love Rolls On" and "I Have The Feeling I've Been Here Before" make that much clear.

Out of eleven songs, "Corcovado" is the only one that's covered with extreme regularity, and even that comes out sparkling and new in Kelly's hands. Happy To Be has it all: fine instrumental solos, a Rolls-Royce rhythm section, sharp arrangements, choice material, and a stellar singer who makes great use of it all.

Brent Black, Critical Jazz 
August 26, 2014

"Great tone, magnificent phrasing and the innate ability to sing with the band and not around them has Happy to Be one of the more entertaining vocal releases this year."

"More than just a pretty face, Julie Kelly is one of those rare triple threats in improvisational music. An acclaimed vocalist, lyricist and educator has Julie Kelly crawling inside a lyric but never getting in her own way." Julie Kelly is considered one of the best vocalists on the west coast, easy to see why!

Why is it all pretty girls think they can sing? More than just a pretty face, Julie Kelly is one of those rare triple threats in improvisational music. An acclaimed vocalist, lyricist and educator has Julie Kelly crawling inside a lyric but never getting in her own way. Nice! Happy to Be features some finely crafted original work and mercifully some more eclectic jewels from the Great America Songbook. Don't get me wrong, I love Cole Porter as well as the next critic but when you have reviewed the same five songs five hundred times then you really appreciated the song selection here. Song selection is everything!

Joining Julie we have Bill Cunliffe, Anthony Wilson, Joe LaBarbera and Bob Sheppard. The entire band functions with a synergy that is rare on recordings such as this. Old school with contemporary flair would be the best descriptions of tunes such as "High In The Sky" from Thad Jones and "Corcovado" from Antonio Carlos Jobim. Kelly is as technically proficient as she is artistically gifted and this shines through on some deep catalog tunes such as Phobe Snow's "Harpo's Blues."

Great tone, magnificent phrasing and the innate ability to sing with the band and not around them has Happy to Be one of the more entertaining vocal releases this year.

Joe Lang, Jersey Jazz 
August 27, 2014

There are many fine singers based in the Los Angeles area, and among the best is JULIE KELLY. Her eighth album, Happy to Be (Jazzed Media - 1067) is a winner from start to finish. She has a wonderful supporting cast of first-call L.A. cats gathered around the superb rhythm section of pianist Bill Cunliffe, guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera. This is a woman who knows how to select fine, but not overdone songs, and sing them with hipness, feeling and smarts. Among the musical treasures are Dave Frishberg's "Our Love Rolls On," Bob Dorough's "You're the Dangerous Type" and Richard Rodney Bennett's "I Never Went Away." Another highlight is "I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before" by Roger Kellaway and the Bergmans. When I heard a recording several years ago by Stacey Kent of "I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again" by Jim Tomlinson and Kazuo Ishiguro, I imagined that other singers would pick up on it. Well seven years have passed since Kent's recording. Kelly, with vocal assistance and an arrangement by John Proulx, has included it here, and has done this fine song proud. That is the case with each selection on Happy to Be.

All About Jazz by Jack Bowers 
September 4, 2014

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 LaBarbera, 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.

Jack Goodstein, Blogcritics 
September 6, 2014

A veteran jazz singer on the West Coast scene, Julie Kelly is set to release her eighth album Happy to Be, her first for Jazzed Media. Working with a top notch 11-piece ensemble, she runs through a menu of 11 tunes, most of which you won't find on the typical songstress' bill of fare. It’s not just original compositions, although there are a couple of those as well. She has chosen a program filled with solid songs that might not have been quite what you’d call standards, but in Kelly’julie kellys hands who knows what the future might bring.

Kelly has something of a special relationship with Brazilian music. Certainly the best-known piece on the album is the Jobim classic "Corcovado." In an arrangement by Venezuelan pianist Otmaro Ruiz she begins in Portuguese before turning to English after a lyrical little guitar passage from Anthony Wilson for an inventive exploration of the tune. She also hits a Latin vibe with “I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again,” with some sweet solo work from Bob Sheppard on flute.

She changes pace with "High in the Sky," a bop romp from Thad Jones with new lyrics by the Dutch vocalist Fleurine. The piece features one of those drum solos from Joe LaBarbera that used to have the rest of the band leaving the stage in the old days and some swinging work from the horns. It is altogether one of the album's many highlights. Kelly supplies a cleverly literary lyric for "The Blues According to Orpheus," a hip take on the myth, with some fine solo work on the synthesizer from the album's producer Bill Cunliffe and guitarist Wilson. Kelly also collaborated with composer/lyricist Susan Marder on the lyric of "For Joni," a beautiful poetic homage to Joni Mitchell which concludes the set.

Kelly gives a sensitive reading to Phoebe Snow's "Harpo's Blues," the album's plaintive opener. But she is equally effective with ballads like "I Have a Feeling I've Been Here Before," "Our Love Rolls On," and "I Never Went Away."

September 4, 2014 Downbeat review in November issue!