Friday, August 11, 2017

The Holler Sessions Brings the Heat

What IS jazz music? 


Photo by Maria Baranova

How do you define it? Who are "real" jazz musicians? How do you listen to jazz?

As arguably music's most postmodern art form, jazz can be polarizing. People either love love love it, or they really love to hate it. The rest of the world tends to sit on the sidelines, intimidated by the music, never really knowing what to do with it.

Photo by Maria Baranova

For people of any camp, there is now thankfully The Holler Sessions, a brilliant new entree into the world of jazz music in the form of a one man show by Frank Boyd. Boyd's irascible character is a Kansas City radio DJ who make it his mission to bring the best jazz music to his audience. Gliding through legend after legend, Boyd takes the audience on a journey through music history to some of the best jazz covers and bands, detailing the specialties of each. And when I say legends, I mean it: Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and many others all make appearances. Boyd's encyclopedic trivia is a delight to die hard fans and an accessible introduction for those who are unfamiliar, and at several points in the show the audience is invited to call in - literally, on their cell phones - to be guided through trivia about select musicians. There is a delightful surprise at the end that I won't spoil for any future audience members here, but suffice it to say, it's the only appropriate culmination for the show after we have learned so much about this art form.

Photo by Maria Baranova

Frank Boyd is an intriguing person to lead this journey. At first he felt a little too Bernie-bro for me and I found myself a bit irritated with his delivery, but as the show progresses it's clear that Boyd has nothing but respect and love for the art of jazz. His delivery is somewhere between J.K. Simmons in Whiplash and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, with a whiff of Paul Giamatti and Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for good measure. It's a performance that slowly builds and really grabs you towards the end of the show, and in retrospect I really appreciate how he has structured the performance. One thing is undeniable: I learned a whole lot, and I suspect the rest of the audience did too.

The set is a static, small staging of the inside of a manic devotee's radio studio, abundant with scraps of paper and post-its, trash, coffee, whiskey and some kind of nameless upper. The clutter never detracts from Boyd's magnetic presence, and strategically placed lighting and hidden props continue to make appearances as he shuffles through the detritus to unveil ever-more records, quotes, images and factoids to teach us about jazz. At several points of the show Boyd even turns the lights off completely for moments at a time or cuts off the sound entirely, forcing the audience to listen without distraction to the pieces and to contemplate their significance. It can feel a little unsettling, but it really does require you to pay attention, and those quiet moments are the ones in which you really start to understand the point Boyd is trying to make.

Photo by Maria Baranova

The Holler Sessions is an excellent entree into the world of jazz for novices, especially young ones, and it's a trip I'd recommend taking. I loved that Boyd dabbled with audience interaction on their phones via call-in segments; even though the delivery was clumsy, it's a trend I am sure we will be (and SHOULD be) seeing more of as performers and audiences become younger and more digitally focused. The Holler Sessions almost feels like a live YouTube series developed for an exclusive live audience. We are all in on Boyd's mission, and if you're not on board by the end of the show you are truly missing out. The Holler Sessions runs at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through August 20. Take a leap and check it out; I bet you'll be glad you did. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

And for those of you who want a deeper dive into under-appreciated music, I HIGHLY recommend reading Kevin Young's The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, an authoritative journey through the history of music performed by African-Americans that was published by Minneapolis' own Graywolf Press a few years ago. It's beautifully written by a local college professor and it will truly open your eyes to the world of hip hop in a way few things I have encountered can. You can find more information about it by clicking on this link