REVIEW: “The Holler Sessions” at the Ancram Opera House

All That’s Jazz

by Barbara Waldinger

Frank Boyd, the solo performer and writer of The Holler Sessions, now playing at the Ancram Opera House, so expertly weaves the improvisational aspects of his DJ’s obsession, jazz, with this live radio show that it’s hard to tell what is scripted and what is ad-libbed.  Ultimately, this partly improvisational piece is a metaphor for the nature of jazz.  The work was created in collaboration with the TEAM, a Brooklyn-based ensemble whose Artistic Director, Rachel Chavkin, serving as one of two Consulting Directors on this project, was nominated for a Tony award for her production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, now running on Broadway.

Boyd plays Ray, a Kansas City DJ, with such contagious exuberance and passion for the music he loves, that he forces even the uninitiated to listen to and appreciate the artistry of the celebrated jazz performers he worships, among whom are Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong.  Ray apparently lives in the tiny studio where he works, sleeping underneath the table from which he broadcasts, drinking coffee (from what appears to be a working coffeemaker) and whiskey, and storing a few food items among the papers, boxes, books and file cabinets in this incredibly cluttered room.   His performance ranges from extreme physicality—stretching as he awakens, dancing, conducting imaginary performers, kicking, pelvic thrusting, miming drum solos–to stillness, as he stops the music and the movement to allow himself and the audience some dead air time.  It’s hard to believe that Boyd, a theatre actor, has not spent his life as a DJ.

At several points in the performance, Ray asks his listeners to call him so they can answer the questions he poses in his jazz trivia contest, whose winners will supposedly receive gift certificates to local barbecue restaurants.  The listeners are played by–the audience!  On each seat is a phone number and a request:  “Please silence your phone but LEAVE IT ON. You will have a chance to use it.”  It takes a while and much exhortation from Ray, including allowing two guesses to a true-false question, for the audience to realize that they are being asked to use their cell phones to call in.  But eventually they do, leading to general hilarity and ad-libbing.

Much of the humor in these “holler sessions” comes from Ray’s dislike of any music that isn’t jazz (James Taylor is singled out for contempt),  of the way commercialization is taking over the music business, of ignorant, untalented people who think they understand or can play jazz, or of useless knowledge about anything that isn’t jazz.  He can’t understand why children are always taught about Christopher Columbus’ three ships, and nothing about jazz greats.  Lamenting the difficult lives of his heroes, Ray retrieves an adding machine to calculate exactly how many hours Parker practiced his horn over three and a half years, at 11-15 hours a day.  Mournfully, Ray recites a list of the untimely deaths of many of these musicians, who routinely played several shows a night every night for years, just in order to survive.  Their terrible life style took a huge human toll—they bore the scars of their struggles.

Some of Ray’s rants do not succeed as well as others, including a long, scatological story comparing the collaboration among jazz musicians to that of soldiers in trenches.  Others fare better, such as Ray’s riffs on current newspaper articles as well as magazines, ranging from Rolling Stone to American Airlines on board materials.  He tries unsuccessfully to bleep out his curse words before he says them.  One surprising story concerns Morris Carnovsky, the great actor, who reportedly lent seven-year-old Louis Armstrong the money to purchase his first cornet in 1908, prompting Ray to speculate about how different the whole world would be if that hadn’t happened (“we could’ve lost the war!”) And his imaginary interview with special guest Miles Davis, during which he plays both the questioner and Davis (in dark glasses and a sport jacket) is priceless.

Then there are the incandescent moments that slow down the frenetic pace of the show, when Ray plays a selection that he adores, shuts off the lights, and we find ourselves really listening to this music, perhaps for the first time.  Among these is Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, which Ray believes is the most beautiful thing he ever heard, and Ellington’s Basin Street Blues, Ray’s vote for what should have been our national anthem.

Eric Southern, who designed the set, is to be congratulated for gathering so much furniture and paraphernalia in one small area.  There is practically no floor space and the walls are covered with post-it notes and photos of well-known jazz artists.  Southern, who is also responsible for the lighting design, uses realistic on set lighting for the studio.  Matt Hubbs, as Sound Designer, not only juggles a long playlist of music but also sound effects as well.

The Holler Sessions premiered in Seattle and has traveled to New York City, the Netherlands, and will go on to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.  Thanks to Jeffrey Mousseau and Paul Ricciardi, who have brought us Frank Boyd’s exciting and original homage to an art form that deserves to be treasured.

The Holler Sessions runs from July 14-16 and July 20-23 at the Ancram Opera House.  For tickets call 518-329-0114 or online at www.ancramoperahouse.org.

Ancram Opera House presents The Holler Sessions by Frank Boyd.  Cast:  Frank Boyd (Ray).  Consulting Directors:  Rachel Chavkin, Josh Aaseng.   Set and Lighting Design:  Eric Southern, Sound Design:  Matt Hubbs, Stage Manager:  Tori Thompson.  Running Time:  80 minutes without intermission; at the Ancram Opera House, 1330 County Route 7, Ancram, NY, from July 14; closing July 23.

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