‘The Holler Sessions’: Portrait of a radio jazz evangelist
The word “fan” is an abbreviation of “fanatic.” In both cases, Ray qualifies.
Holed up in a cramped broadcast studio, this Kansas City radio jock plays vintage jazz records and waxes poetic and pissed-off between tunes for, one guesses, a very small late-night audience.
Ray, the sole character in Frank Boyd’s humorous, impassioned solo show “The Holler Sessions” at On the Boards, also sleeps, eats and drinks in this hoarder’s cubbyhole.
He inhabits the place, body and soul. The flurry of stick-’em notes, the piles of newspapers and boxes of files, the tacked-up photos of jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, the bottle of whiskey in a drawer — all are projections of Ray’s total devotion to a seminal American art form and his evangelical advocacy for it.
Worshipping at the shrine of jazz, Ray urges, seduces, all but begs us to join his flock. Through mutual listening to the sublimely inventive sounds of Mingus and Ellington, Ray insists, “We collectively create a thing of beauty.”
Boyd, who also wrote and staged “The Holler Sessions,” recently had a magnetic turn in Book-It Rep’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (he was Kavalier). More germane here is his previous work with Elevator Repair Service and other experimental New York theater troupes.
“The Holler Sessions” is framed as an experiential plunge that dares to romanticize, a total-immersion music-appreciation seminar taught by the most enthusiastic prof imaginable. And it is Boyd’s worthy attempt to incorporate the riffing improvisational essence of jazz into Ray’s reveries, exhortations and bantering with listeners, as comics like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce did in their routines.
At 80 minutes, the show hits some snags and slack spots on occasion (starting with an overextended and grossly scatological metaphor). And the purposeful omission of any backstory for Ray cuts two ways.
But Boyd the actor is on fire. His hipster New York accent (an homage to comedian Carlin, one of the models for Ray?) never flags. His mercurial physicality impresses, whether he’s doing manic calisthenics, or sitting stock still, in droopy-eyed wonder, taking in Satchmo’s consummate trumpet solo on “West End Blues.”
He gives a lover’s sensuous appreciation of every note of sax-player Ben Webster’s brushed-velvet version of “Body and Soul,” as well as a purist’s cocky put-down of "square” music, especially folk and commercial pop (James Taylor and Justin Timberlake get sacked). He despairs over the corporate “branding” and marketing of music.
“The Holler Sessions” can get static. The energy dips when improv chats with audience members (who “call in” on smartphones) don’t click. And it can get lecture-y (e.g., reverent quoting from the sayings of Miles Davis, who could really dish the jive when he pleased).
Presenting Ray as a sui generis phenom, without any backstory or analysis, is an admirable creative risk. But a sprinkling of tantalizing glimmers from the guy’s past could add more contours, without over-explaining eccentricities.
Whatever adjustments Boyd may make, “The Holler Sessions” should delight many fellow jazz aficionados and turn some of the uninitiated on to a treasure trove of brilliant music. (A playlist of tunes Ray spins is handed out post show.)
It’s a marvel, in this age of perpetual distraction, to sit with a large group in darkness, raptly listening to and really hearing, the furious wonders of bebop. “The Holler Sessions” also tags on a coda, a copacetic surprise I won’t reveal. Let’s just say it brings jazz even more to life.
Misha Berson: email@example.com