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Program Notes for COIL 2016: The Holler Sessions by Frank Boyd
Epiphanies in Real Time by Brendan Kiley
Lovers of art and performance—and, when it comes down to it, lovers in general—know the thrill of discovery. It’s an ineffable and electric feeling to realize you’re on the verge of some new wonder: The lights dim (usually), the event begins, and after a few minutes you realize you’re already leaning forward in your seat, beginning to glimpse the contours of some beautiful phenomenon you never knew existed.
That visceral experience is rare—but it’s even rarer for it to be viscerally dramatized.
The Holler Sessions is, in its first few minutes, just a slice of a DJ’s workaday life. He makes coffee, waters plants, sits in the booth, plays records, and talks into the vacuum of a radio-station microphone. But solo performer Frank Boyd brings something wholly apart from the usual, sleepy persona of most jazz DJs in most cities—he’s a volcanically enthusiastic neophyte, not a cognoscenti snob. The pathos, exuberance, and intricacies of jazz are giving him epiphanies in real time. And we get to be there.
The marvel of The Holler Sessions is watching a person who’s marveling. He rhapsodizes while telling the story of Louis Armstrong getting his first cornet as a kid delivering coal to New Orleans brothels. When he hears a favorite jazz solo, he sits back in his chair and throws a towel—which he normally wears around his neck—over his head, too awe-struck to speak. At one point in the show, he slogs through the day’s newspaper, summarizing its contents for his invisible radio audience while Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges’s “Basin Street Blues” plays in the background.
In the Seattle performance at On the Boards, he consulted a USA Today: “The Dow is down … Sports—who cares? … There’s nothing here!” Suddenly, energized by a few notes from a horn, he sat upright, backed the song up to the 5:50 mark, and became a verbose lightning rod for Harry “Sweets” Edison’s trumpet solo that begins quietly and unassumingly, then builds to a clarion call, then falls back into a humble virtuosity. That, to our DJ guide, is the real news.
“This should be our national anthem!” he shouted, stabbing the air. “Fuck this Francis Scott Key bullshit! This is us! It feels like us! This should be playing before every ball game! We should all learn the chord progressions in kindergarten! Everybody can plunk along on something!” He was right, of course, but he—like we—realizes he lives in an imperfect world. Then he threw that towel over his head, overwhelmed.
The Holler Sessions is also semi-autobiographical. When I interviewed him in Seattle, Boyd said that he used to think of jazz as little more than sonic wallpaper. (I know a successful young woman in New York who says she refuses to sleep with any man who has her over to his apartment and puts on a jazz record—she thinks it’s a sign of aesthetic laziness.) But then Boyd started to really listen to the music, and research it, and had his own epiphanies. “To disregard this music or not encounter it is a huge opportunity that’s lost for self-discovery,” he said. “There’s something here that I need, and I don’t know what that is yet. But it’s important.”
Watching a person realize something is important but not knowing what that importance is—that’s The Holler Sessions. It is, at its root, the lucky experience of watching someone fall in love.
© Photo by Maria Baranova