‘Holler Sessions’ brings hallowed jazz sound and story to DPT
DETROIT – The Holler Sessions, now playing at Detroit Public Theatre, is a one-man-show that takes the form of a live radio broadcast of jazz music and commentary. It is a generous slice of heaven for fans of classic jazz and a tantalizing appetizer for those who are curious to learn more but have been intimidated by the music’s esoteric reputation. Here’s a chance to taste its earthy flavors in the company of friends and mere steps away from the former Paradise Theatre (now Orchestra Hall), where so many jazz greats brought their signature sound to Detroit.
The host of the radio show is Ray, performed by triple-threat actor, author and director, Frank Boyd; he’s an East Lansing native who now lives in Seattle, where the show premiered in 2015. It’s been performed in NYC and The Netherlands, and heads to the Guthrie Theatre later this summer. To say Boyd performs as Ray, even to say he embodies Ray, feels like an understatement. We suspect that Ray is an alter ego for the actor/playwright – a character who lives chained inside Boyd’s soul and is simply released before each curtain.
The play opens in the grungy radio studio with Ray curled into a fetal position under the desk while the music of Charles Mingus serves as lullaby. Ray painfully wakes, unfolds, and in short order, finds sunglasses, black coffee and an open microphone. Detroiters expecting the smooth intonations of Ed Love will be surprised by Ray’s manic energy and capricious expletives, but he shares a reverence for the authentic sound many locals first discovered on WDET’s Destination Jazz.
DJ Ray is a white missionary from the church of Great American Jazz, desperate to save the souls of all infidels raised on the pabulum of insipid music. We can forgive his frantic sense of urgency, his dogmatic sermons, his shameless proselytizing, because Ray is a sincere, born-again believer. He is giving witness to the healing powers of Charles Mingus, Bird Parker and Coleman Hawkins. He has been baptized in the flowing notes of Ben Wilson, cleansed in the tears of Billie Holiday, and made new by the redemptive power of Duke Ellington. Jazz is his church and his country. His only loyalties are to the propulsive, syncopated rhythms and improvisations of the horn and rhythm sections. His national anthem is Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” Ray is not a musician, but he is an inspired preacher and a prophet of the polyphonic sound that artists like Miles Davis created anew night after night. And he is dead certain that if you listen – truly train your ears to the music – you will understand the secret language shared by the jazz greats. Therein lies salvation.
The script for the aptly named Holler Sessions is both a rant and a homily flavored with a dash of improv. The creative team supporting Frank Boyd includes Consulting Directors Rachel Chavkin and Josh Aaseng, Set and Lighting Designer Eric Southern, and Matt Hubbs, whose loving Sound Design makes the magic happen.
The show is immersive – the music wraps the audience in the the arms of a lover. As Ray preaches about the communal nature of the music, the great democracy of jazz, he quotes the late great percussionist and composer Max Roach: “We collectively created a thing of beauty.” The essentially collaborative nature of jazz – the risk inherent in continuous improvisation – is the ultimate act of creation. Jazz audiences have long understood their role as active listeners. Those attending The Holler Sessions will do well to approach this play with a similar understanding. The play is totally accessible. There are trivia questions, but no pop quiz. Jazz expertise is not required to enjoy this show, which runs straight through without intermission. It is a sensory baptism – a quick, cool dip into the font of jazz – where meaning transcends language and all is forgiven.
There is a dialog taking place between the jazz musicians showcased in this play – a yearning testimony that is tapped out in the call and response like a syncopated Morse Code. The Holler Sessions invites us to enjoy the stories these artists, poets and philosophers share – assuring us that the language is universal, heard with the heart and felt in the bones.