An unkempt Kansas City disc jockey named Ray has appointed himself an altar boy at the exalted shrine of jazz, and his faith burns like a five-alarm fire. Embodied with respect and ferocity by Frank Boyd in “The Holler Sessions,” which runs through Friday at the Paradise Factory, Ray radiates a hard-core obsessiveness that’s both scary and contagious. You get the feeling that he wears sunglasses inside not to be cool, but because the light he’s seen is so bright.
Part of P.S. 122’s Coil Festival 2016, “The Holler Sessions,” performed and written by Mr. Boyd in collaboration with the experimental theater group the TEAM (with Rachel Chavkin and Josh Aaseng as consulting directors), creates a convincing portrait of a monomaniac that, for all its flashiness, never blocks the view of the object of his passion.
Yes, Ray, with his hyperkinetic delivery and sweaty sense of urgency, is a watch-me kind of guy. But what he really wants is for us to listen — not to him, but to the discs he spins from a slovenly broadcast room (designed and lighted by Eric Southern), where he subsists on gulps of coffee, whiskey, apples and peanuts.
Ray, it seems, discovered jazz only a few years ago, and he’s outraged that he’s spent so much of his life without it. How could schools have taught him about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, he asks in astonished anger, instead of the holy trinity of Duke, Bird and Billie.
Like many a classic jazz D.J., he’s steeped in the arcana of recording session lore and biographical back stories. But he also retains the frothing enthusiasm of the newborn fanboy, and he tears into convulsive, obscenity-peppered rants that emulate the riffs of his favorite artists.
Not that he thinks he could ever be on their level; as Ray points out many times, he is no musician himself. A faint cloud of pathos befogs Ray when he leaves his chair to shimmy to the beats of Coltrane, Davis, Armstrong and the Charleses Parker and Mingus (Matt Hubbs did the excellent sound design), or speaks almost longingly of the lethal self-destructiveness of many of his idols. (Ray has the jerky rhythms, the motor mouth and even the nosebleeds of a cokehead.)
But when Ray sits back and lets the music wash over him, there’s dignity in his awe-struck stillness. His raptness makes us want to hear through his ears. And when the theater fades to black, as it does intermittently throughout the show, and we sit in the darkness with the music, sound becomes tactile, and even pop-station babies and longhairs are likely to feel like true believers in the gospel of Ray.
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James Gavin, journalist and author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker