Julie Kelly: An instinct for jazz

When jazz singer Julie Kelly takes a stage, she does so with authority. A local veteran, she has the ease of control in her presentation. Indeed, for the jazz-listening public, it's hard to imagine the tall, imposing Kelly doing anything else in her life.

It's not a studied pose. "At this point," she states, "I don't do a lot of formulating." That ability to trust her instinct is the result of a career that has bred her artistic convictions. Kelly will bring that sure-footed quality to Mambo's in Glendale on Tuesday.

She's not so affixed in her modus operandi that she doesn't make room for surprises, though. "There are a lot of intangibles to music," she points out, "but you have to be open to new things. That's why I listen to the young singers."

Asked whom she appreciates of the new crop, Kelly replies: "I love Gregory Porter, Kenny Washington, Gretchen Parlato and Esperanza Spaulding. I like local singers too: Kathleen Grace, Sara Gazarek, and of course, the established ones like Bill Henderson, Sue Raney and Tierney Sutton. There's always something to learn."

Kelly is a swinger who loves to run with the instrumentalists on a bright tempo. But she's also a poised ballad singer and can deliver blues-based material with authenticity. Hackneyed songs are never her bill of fare, and audiences are continually tickled by Kelly's choice of good, though out-of-the-way songs.

"Sometimes people come to hear me," Kelly says, "and they just want me to sing Great American Songbook standards. But those songs, as great as they are, are only a part of what I do. I like to be open to whatever happens in the moment, and I like to be able to pursue something new if I feel it."

Still, Kelly finds that older material beckons these days. "The longer I sing," she says, "the less I search out new songs. I find myself revisiting older songs, like 'Til the Clouds Roll By' by Walter Donaldson or 'It's a Wonderful World' — not Louis Armstrong's 'What a Wonderful World,' but the older tune by Harold Adamson. As I get older, I find that those songs that I sang years ago have different things to say to me now. And I like that."

Pasadena guitarist Larry Koonse will pilot Kelly's backing trio (with bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Dan Schnelle) at Mambo's. He's been one of the most sought-after jazz musicians in SoCal for quite some time — both as an ensemble player and as an accompanist who does the work of a pianist for singers. Forward-looking vocalists like Kelly, Tessa Souter and Luciana Souza value Koonse for his thoughtful solos and sensitive backing.

"What I love about Larry," Kelly says, "is that he doesn't do anything to excess. Whatever he plays is just where it's supposed to be, and it's always the best thing for that moment."

She feels blessed to have had close musical relationships with a number of great pianists, including Christian Jacob, Otmaro Ruiz and the late Tom Garvin (1944-2011). "We were very close for many years," Kelly confides. "Tom always wanted to know what the lyrics were, especially in the critical places of the song. That was one of his strengths: he could think the whole piece through, rather than just rely on using the conventions that had already been played before. He was the deepest musical thinker, and he used to agonize over the notes in a chord. He was maybe one of the last of the great accompanists, and I miss him a lot."

Like all midlife performers, Kelly has lived a little and gained perspectives on both her art and her life. When asked how she knew that singing was her calling, she doesn't hesitate to answer: "Because it doesn't go away. It's not on-again, off-again. Circumstances in my life may change, but singing never goes away."

What: Julie Kelly with the Larry Koonse Trio

Where: Mambo's Cafe, 1701 Victory Blvd., Glendale

When: Tuesday, August 20

More info: (818) 545-8613, http://www.mambosla.com

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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