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A savvy songbird turns to jazz legends on her new live record that’ll have the whole city singing
By Marc Lee

With a just-released record under her belt, another due in September and yet another being recorded at this very moment, Kristine Mills is working her way into Houston jazz lovers’ hearts disc by disc. She spent the month of May celebrating her 40th birthday with a slew of CD release parties, and just put the finishing touches on a disc she recorded live at Cézanne with members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Arranger and trumpeter Barry Lee Hall Jr. and drummer Rocky White joined the Houston native for the session. She calls them friends, and they’ve performed together for years. She met Rocky while performing with the Ronnie Renfro Big Band. “I didn’t know who Rocky was at the time,” she says, “but he kept pulling me aside and saying, ‘Kid, I’ve played with the greats and you have a voice like this. You just need some more experience.’”

And Barry Hall has most certainly played with some greats. “I was talking to Barry once about how I wanted to handle ‘Round Midnight.’ And he just laughed and said, ‘Honey, I used to play this with Sarah Vaughan.’”

Mills began her career in college, singing in bands on Austin’s 6th Street. She moved to New Orleans and then to Florida where she became a wife and a mother. During that time she honed her voice and her skills as a performer. “I’ve had a lot of life experience in the last couple of years.

So, now I finally have something to say when I sing these songs. Sure, I’ll get out there and shake my ass and the whole bit. But I’m a musician, and I’m humbled by musicians’ talent. I believe I’m an instrument.”

Like her debut, the so-far untitled new disc is a collection of jazz and pop standards with a surprise or two thrown in. A version of “Little Wing,” which the Jimi Hendrix Foundation recently approved, will be available as a special single on Apple’s iTunes. And Harold Arlen’s “One for My Baby and (One More for the Road)” is dedicated to her uncle, Lee, “the only Jew ever buried with a bottle of Jack.”

“He was a big drinker,” Mills adds. “My commitment to him, instead of sitting shiva and and saying Kaddish, is to end all my gigs and this record with that song.”

In Brazil, she’s working on a different kind of record with one of the country’s most respected pianists, Paulo Midosi. Kristine describes it as a kind of “nueva bossa nova,” more upbeat than the style played by Antonio Carlos Jobim or Gilberto Gil. She’s taking songs that she’s written over the past 20 years and having Paulo arrange them in the bossa vein. Then she’ll bring the recordings home to add vocals and other instruments.

“I’ll also be playing with Paulo in Rio, and then some friends have put together a little jazz fest for us in Arraial do Cabo.” In September, she’ll be back in town for the release of the record with the Ellington guys and a party to benefit Legacy Community Health Services. Her life and career are really swinging now, and Houston’s own jazz siren’s best is clearly yet to come.