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CD Review - Kellye Gray, Tomato Kiss
Proteus Recordings

By Mark Towns
Published: January 9 1997, Houston Press

A few years back, before she picked up and moved to San Francisco, Kellye Gray was arguably Houston's finest -- and probably most popular -- jazz vocalist. Her debut CD, Standards in Gray, was among the best-selling early releases on Justice Records, but when Tomato Kiss was recorded in 1992, Gray was without label backing. Now, four years later, the local Proteus Recordings has revived this under-appreciated gem. With its all-star cast -- including late pianist Dave Catney, to whom the CD is dedicated, saxophonist Warren Snead, drummer Sebastian Whittaker, bassist David Craig, guitarist Erich Avinger, percussionist Kuko Miranda and horn player supreme Dennis Dotson -- this release exceeds Standards's standards. Among the numerous standouts are the opening track, Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce," which highlights Gray's low-register muted trumpet imitation, as well as short solos by Snead and Catney. "Speak Low" follows, with a fine flugelhorn break from Dotson. And the title track is reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage-era excursions.

As for Gray, her vocal stylings bear distinct resemblances to Sarah Vaughan and Ethel Merman. The Vaughan similarities suit Gray the best, as her bombastic Mermanisms often seem a bit out of context. If these were show tunes, the Merman similarities would be fine, but atop Tomato Kiss's smooth, post-bebop mood jazz, cabaret-style vibrato breaks the flow. Fortunately, a strong Ethel wind only occasionally blusters through Kiss. (*** 1/2)


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