Kelly Green’s debut recording, Life Rearranged, released just a few weeks ago, has cemented her place as one of the most-talked-about new jazz artists in America, a rapid rise which makes her the quintessential local girl made good. The Jacksonville-based pianist has plied her trade within the ruthless confines of New York City for the past couple of years, and she’s certainly made the most of every waking moment.
Seven of the album’s 13 tracks are her own compositions; four feature the great Christian McBride, arguably the No. 1 jazz bassist working anywhere in the world today. She’s a big, big fan of his work, and the admiration is reciprocal, as he wrote on the inside cover of the CD: “Kelly Green is one of the most talented and spirited people I know. Everything about her is joyous and swingin’!” Those who’ve followed her relentless path to success—and I count myself among them—readily agree.
Green was born into a musical family in Deland, and grew up in Orlando, where her father is a bassist. She began playing the piano at age 5, but she’s been singing since she was a baby. “I fell in love with Thelonious Monk’s music when I was 11 years old,” she says, “and I’ve been studying jazz ever since. I specifically started with his album Brilliant Corners [released in 1957] and the album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane,” recorded in 1957, arguably the greatest year in history for that genre.
Her initial training was under Jamey Aebersold and Debbie Clifton, before polishing her skills under Lynne Arriale and Bunky Green at UNF. “The reason I am here today, however, is because of the great Mulgrew Miller,” she says. “He was an incredible human being and created his own language on the instrument and with his compositions. I would not be here today without him.” The pianist was a visiting artist at UNF and helped smooth her passage to William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. While there, she furthered her training under James Weidman and Harold Mabern.
After completing her studies, she moved to New York in 2014. “I’d dreamed of moving to NYC since I was about 15 years old when I was starting to really fall in love with jazz,” she says. “So when I was already in New Jersey, I figured it just made sense to hop over the bridge and hope for the best.” Her instincts were correct: It wasn’t long before she was getting bookings in the city’s resurgent jazz scene, which is suffused with talent from this area. In the subsequent three years, she’s performed in such hip, happening, historic spots as The Blue Note, B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (in Lincoln Center, no less), Minton’s Playhouse (where bebop was born in the early ’40s), Mezzrow, Smalls Jazz Club, The Django NYC, Zinc Bar New York, Fat Cat, The Bitter End, Bowery Electric, Rockwood Music Hall, The Flatiron Room, Fine & Rare and the venerable Apollo Theater, as well as gigs in places as diverse as Orlando, San Rafael, Hartford and Medellin, Colombia.
That’s an impressive CV for an artist of any age, but it’s downright stunning for someone so young. Green’s eponymous trio is currently working at Cleopatra’s Needle on the Upper West Side every Sunday, running a jam session for the second half of the night, which lets her give back to the business that’s given her so much. Playing piano while singing is not as easy as it looks (consider: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.). “It’s extremely hard to do both and be completely free with both at the same time,” she says. “To have good vocal technique and phrase freely while accompanying on piano and playing with the rhythm section is very challenging, but I like to challenge myself.”
In the grand tradition of great jazz records, Life Rearranged was recorded over the course of two days in late 2016, live, in-studio with no overdubs. She brought a band comprising the crème de la crème of New York’s session musicians, including McBride, whom she met while working for his nonprofit, Jazz House Kids, up in Montclair. His nickname for her is “Wynton Kelly Green,” a nod to Wynton Kelly, pianist on Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue. She pulled from an archive of roughly 50 songs she’s written so far, filling out the set with tunes by Frank Loesser, Paulette Girard, Sammy Cahn and Cole Porter.
“My favorite song is always one that I just recently learned,” she says. “Right now, it’s probably ‘Tongue Twister’ by Mulgrew Miller, for which we have a special trio arrangement. I also love ‘Conception’ by George Shearing.” With one foot firmly planted in the music’s vast history, and the other striding boldly into the future, Kelly Green is keeping ahead of the beat, with no ceiling on her potential. Her success further illustrates the level of talent Northeast Florida has been producing, for years now, with much
more to come.
Find out more about Kelly Green's music onlilne at kellygreenpiano.com.