Originality: That is all we ask for when we listen to jazz — that raw, new approach to music that keeps us at the edge of our seats and makes us beg for more. Singer Kellye Gray has accomplished much of that in her surprising new album And, They Call Us Cowboys, where the Texan jazz vocalist has practically reinvented some very well-known country tunes in a jazz and blues environment.
True, it is not a new thing. Ray Charles already fought some battles back in the day when he decided to record a bunch of country and western songs. But if you think about it, this is always going to be a risk not too many have taken, meaning Gray is part of an exclusive group of fearless artists who have shaken up some boundaries and have come out the other side looking — sounding — fabulous. The album features Gray on vocals, Jake Langley on guitar, Pamela York and Kevin Lovejoy on keys, Chris Maresh on bass, Kyle Thompson on drums, John Mills on horns, Red Young on organ and Chris Lovejoy on percussion.
My track pick is definitely “Always On My Mind.” I can recall Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson’s versions, so you can imagine the size of those shoes, huh? Here comes Gray, a little blues infused, and treating this song as a best friend who needed some fresh start and a little push to make it happen. Brilliant.
And then there’s others like Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” (absolutely fantastic!), Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (with almost a bossa nova tempo, wrapping you up in nostalgia and clear blue skies), and even Elvis Presley’s very own “In the Ghetto” (it doesn’t get any more brave than that; some songs are so big that revisiting them makes no sense, unless you can add some spice and some freshness to it, and I like her approach very much), and Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (ever so delicate and misty in her voice).
This is a beautiful tribute to some fine songs, one that should not leave you untouched. With arrangements by Gray herself and Jake Langley (also on guitar), you may find yourself either discovering country music — or better yet, falling in love with what jazz can always bring to the table, regardless of what difficulties or challenges are presented to her. It’s a personal homage to her Texas heritage, and one that the singer has pulled off quite nicely.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: Where do jazz and country music meet for you?
KELLYE GRAY: Country music was the first musical idiom to accept jazz and incorporate it into their music. The first crossover artists were folks like Bob Wills and Hank Williams. They loved the syncopation from polyrhythm imposed against their straight fours. They also saw how it affected their dancers. The rest is history, and this is where it meets for me too. Well, that and the fact that most country tunes are generally well crafted and can be interpreted easily in many different ways.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: As a Texan, what’s country music to you?
KELLYE GRAY: It was always around. You couldn’t really get away from it. The restaurants, the bars, the cowboys with the radios in their trucks were always blasting country music. I wasn’t a huge country music fan, but I certainly had it in my daily life. My parents were more into pop, R&B, blues and jazz — but they also loved a great tune from Patsy or Willie, even Dolly and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: And jazz?
KELLYE GRAY: Jazz is and was my savior. I didn’t really realize this fact until I was well into my 20s. I had spent many years as an insomniac. My mom had a few marriages and by the time I was a teenager I was too stressed out to put myself to sleep with my own record collection. I would find myself digging around in my parents’ record collection to find something that would calm my mind and help me get to sleep. I was into James Brown, Ike and Tina (Turner), Ray (Charles), Led Zeppelin and just about anything pop. I didn’t know anything about the jazz albums I was choosing. I was just attracted to their covers. It wasn’t until I began singing jazz by the ripe old age of 26 that I had programmed all these standards and scales into my subconscious mind. I didn’t think I knew anything about jazz, but once I had the epiphany, I realized that I had spent those years programming my mind with folks like Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk, Chris Connor and Sarah Vaughn. Modal scales and alternate rhythmic patterns just fell out of me. I didn’t even begin to scat sing until I was 27 or so — and that happened on a dare. I took that dare, and it lead me to awake to my natural talent for singing and being an instrument within the ensemble.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like, had you chosen Texas music over jazz?
KELLYE GRAY: No, I never really gave it much thought. I knew I had a thing for improvisation. I was an improvisational comic actor at the Comedy Workshop in Houston. I was in a troupe with two comics who eventually blew-up, Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison. I loved the way that you could move the dialogue in a new direction, if you wanted to do so. I did flirt with going into Texas music or country at one time — and figured if I did ever really go for it that I would have to change my name to “Silver Gray,” This project will be the closest I will get to ever becoming “Silver,” but let’s just say I am at my most happy being Kellye Gray.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: What is most special about this record to you?
KELLYE GRAY: The most special thing about this record for me is how every track sounded like it was already mixed while we were tracking. The mix in the headphones was perfect. We are all like family. There were no sightlines for anyone to see anyone, not even the engineer. We are just listening with the headphones and taking it one bite at a time. Everyone on the record is a friend of mine and we have all played together for years and years. They know me and I know them. This makes recording a breeze. But, Jake Langley’s abilities as co-arranger, engineer and musician brought it all together. He was able to hear my thoughts and get them on tape. Oh, and I can’t forget about recording “Sailing” with Chris Maresh. He and I made up a little duo group a few years back that we called Fuzz. It was described as the love-child of Jaco (Pastorius) and Ella (Fitzgerald). We would perform “Sailing,” and the crowd would just come unglued. Chris is arguably one of the best bassists out there right now. He is stellar on this record, whether he is playing acoustic, electric or fretless. And, this is a very special thing.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: Tell me about the selection of these tracks.
KELLYE GRAY: The tracks just came out of my personal relationship with each tune. I listened to every one of those tunes growing up, except “Night’s Lullaby.” I always wanted to record “Dang Me” and “Deep In the West” but never thought I’d be able to find a project where they would make sense. But they do on this record — and they make quite a statement. I love it!
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: Who is Kellye Gray today?
KELLYE GRAY: Today, I am a jazz artist looking to bring the music to the people. Jazz has been having a rough time over these past 30 years. I spent a few years bumping along watching what was happening to this great American musical art form. The fact that many young people have no idea who Louis Armstrong is or can’t even recognize a swing feel just breaks my heart. So, I figure I have a voice that can move people to a greater and higher place within themselves. It’s my destiny. I can’t let it go, no matter how old I get — and no matter how few people are left to appreciate this art that we create. My future is set to go onward and bring my voice and this music to the people: Whomever will listen, wherever they are.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: Like Ray Charles back in the day, did you think of the fans that would disapprove?
KELLYE GRAY: No, I never thought fans would disapprove of anything I am doing. I know that if I am creating the music from an honest place that the fans will get it. It’s just Texas music, not something atonal and dissonant. These are well-crafted compositions and I am bringing forth a fact that a well-crafted tune can be interpreted in many different ways. For me, it’s more about making the words and arrangements come from an authentic place. If I create just for the approval of the fans, then I would never get anything done. This is where I come from. I only want to put great music out there that is accessible for just about anyone.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: When all is said and done, Willie Nelson or Duke Ellington?
KELLYE GRAY: Sorry, on this one I have to go with Duke. I love Willie and a perfectly crafted tune like “Crazy,” but Ellington’s collection is just mind blowing. At my core, I am really a musician and not a singer. I want singers to be more like instruments and not like singers. Singers try too hard, all too often, to get the listeners approval. I believe that if you are coming from your own authentic voice, then they can’t help but find approval — because it is so genuine.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: How do you describe your voice?
KELLYE GRAY: My voice is facile, liquid and I have the use of 3-4 octaves. I love to mimic instruments. It’s dark toned, but has uplifting highs. Seems like a lot of people relate to my voice. This makes me very happy. I try not to over-think anything I am capable of achieving. I just try to “do.”
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: Tell me about your story, your past, your present, your future.
KELLYE GRAY: My first CD blew up out of Texas in 1990 on an indie label. I was their fledgling artist. It went to the top of the jazz charts and stayed there for a year. I was sued by that label. They decided that I was become so successful for them that I owed them two more records. But my contract was for one only, and when we attempted to negotiate a new contract they bucked and sued. I was very young and it broke me up. I went indie by 1994 and started a little label with my accountant. We put out my second record in 1996 and it placed in the Top 20 radio charts too. In addition to scratching away as an indie looking for an audience, I was in the middle of a very broken relationship. I don’t know how I managed to keep my career alive. But my fans are true and they kept the dream alive for me. A few years ago, I had this idea to tie my heritage with my postmodern career and what was birthed was this Texas music project. I think this record will continue to turn heads in my direction. It isn’t pretentious. I am not attempting to sell anything other than great tracks and a good performance. My dreams are to be able to tour around the globe, presenting my art in showcase venues to fans that get it. I think I have worked long and hard enough to ask for this. My next release will be the re-issue of my first record “Standards In Gray” — which I just got ownership of again after 20 years. That will be followed by a recording of my originals. I have spent this last two years writing and working with my co-writer and arranger, Wayne Wallace. I am very excited to be emotionally and psychologically capable of composing again. I was broken for many years and couldn’t even think about writing. I had begun writing music when I was 14 but, after a life of emotional upheaval and bad choices in partners, I just couldn’t write anymore. The healing I have chosen for myself over this past 10 years has brought me back to my center and my writing. I am thrilled for the future.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: Who are your influences?
KELLYE GRAY: Of course, my influences were the voices of our times. There was Ray, Ella, Frank (Sinatra), Tina, Barbra (Streisand), Al Jarreau, James Brown, Janis (Joplin), Robert Plant and so many more — but the bigger influences were coming from the horn players and guitarists. I loved Miles (Daviis), Bird (Charlie Parker) and Trane (John Coltrane) but I also loved Stevie Ray (Vaughan) and Jimi (Hendrix). I guess I was just influenced by anyone who was coming from their authentic selves and not some made up personality.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: What’s your favorite track on the album? For me, it’s “Always on My Mind,” since I’ve never heard it like this before. There’s even a little Janis in there.
KELLYE GRAY: Hard to say which is my actual favorite. I’m drawn to them from such emotional places that it would be like asking a mother who is her favorite child. I’m just happy that you like what we’ve done and I thank you for that.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: Which was the hardest one to sing?
KELLYE GRAY: “Sailing” mainly because I deconstructed the melody so much and put in those 9ths. The pitches can be hard to hit, if I am not in good voice.
ESTHER BERLANGA-RYAN: What keeps you motivated nowadays?
KELLYE GRAY: Basically, I keep motivated because there’s really no other way for me to go. I sing, act, perform, teach and laugh. Living life in the moment and with as little attachment as possible keeps me moving onward. In the words of one of my most favorite characters ever written, Mame Dennis: “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!”