oregon jazz

Barra Brown: Sense of Urgency

Portland musician’s diverse projects embrace his expansive creative mentality

On the day Portland drummer/composer Barra Brown entered the studio to begin recording his second album of original compositions, he got the news: a family friend he’d known all his life was in the hospital. Valeria Ball, a close friend of Brown’s mother who led a Southern Oregon dance company that once included Brown, had a brain tumor, and needed emergency surgery. 

Brown, a Lewis & Clark College alum who’s one of Oregon’s widest-ranging musicians, was devastated, but  “she would want you to make the album,” his mother told him. He forged ahead with  Dreaming Awake,  released in 2015 and dedicated to Ball, who died the following year, and others who have battled cancer. Since then, Brown, now 30, has unleashed a flood of music in varied styles, playing various instruments, as though he needs to try everything now and take it as far as he can — before it’s too late.

Barra Brown. Photo: Reed Ricker.

“I think I have a sense of urgency just because I don’t know when I’m going to die,” he muses. “Maybe that comes from my friend dying. There’s no excuse for not doing what it is that you’re meant to do. There’s this urgency: all these ideas are here. The struggle is having time to get them all out.”

He’s going as fast as he can. Since 2013, Brown has led or appeared on two dozen recordings, most under his own name and via his Korgy & Bass project. His latest, the four-movement song cycle These Souls, which drops this week, was actually written and recorded two years ago as he dealt with grief over Ball’s illness. It marks a creative breakthrough for Brown — but don’t expect it to signal a new artistic direction. The music he’s since made explores multiple paths, with more to come.

Identity Crisis

Brown pursued multiple musical paths from the start. His mother, a ballet teacher who immigrated to Oregon from Ireland, helped persuade the elementary school in Lookingglass, the southern Oregon town outside Roseburg where he grew up, to create a band program, and Barra picked up the flute there. His parents also bravely installed a drum set in the room he shared with his brothers, thereby giving Barra early hands on experience with creating both melody and rhythm. He also danced in the Irish dance school his mother founded, and modern dance in his mother’s friend Ball’s company Traduza.

Brown continued his flute studies at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College — the first member of his family to go to college — and his drumming in the great Portland jazz drummer Alan Jones’s celebrated academy, where he met future collaborators such as the band members in the Wishermen, a young quintet formed in 2010 with Brown as drummer. Even then, though, Brown knew he wanted to create his own music.

Barra Brown

But composing in what style? His early training was classical, he’d written a piece for his high school band, but encountering jazz in college made him eager to play with, and write for, the superlative musicians the genre attracts. 

“I came across jazz way later than everyone else,” Brown remembers. “I thought, ‘This is the epitome of musicianship.’ I wanted to play with them. I’ve always thought of [my music] as compositions with heavy improv sections. I was struggling with, ‘Am I a jazz musician? Am I classical? Am I a flute player?’ It’s always been an identity crisis at every turn.”

His mother helped him sort it out when he raised those questions at his college graduation. “The instruments you’re playing don’t really matter,” she said. “They’re all just different ways of expressing yourself, depending on where you are in your life. You’re always going to be making music.”

Brown took the message to heart, resolving to learn and play whatever he needed to express the sounds he wanted to make — guitar, synths and keyboards, drums, flute, a little bass. “When I was younger I was either/or. Now I’m both/and. I’m all of them: now I’m a flute player, now I’m a drummer, now I’m gonna learn the bass. When you learn the instruments, you write better. It’s all tools to get myself out of my own composing patterns. If I write on a new instrument, these things that stick in my body don’t exist. It’s when you don’t know what’s happening that you stay in that wonderment of music.”

After college, Brown embraced both/and. His drum skills earned him early entry into Portland’s indie rock networks, including gigs and tours with Shook Twins, Old Wave Ages and Ages, Alameda, Morning Ritual. He also put together a crack jazz quintet that released a pair of albums on Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble label, sandwiched around an EP (released by the indie rock Cavity Search records) with his Wishermen friends. While that first PJCE album from 2013, Songs for a Young Heart, leaned on its lead players (saxophonist Nicole Glover, acclaimed trumpeter Thomas Barber, and rock guitarist Adam Brock from Old Wave), it also displayed a compositional assurance and surprising for a debut, and a decided emphasis on song forms rather than extended improv. 

One track, the Bacharachian instrumental “Poem” (derived from Claude Debussy’s gorgeous, ever-popular “Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) inspired an entirely different album. Brock covered it so persuasively — and so differently from his original — that Brown included both versions on Songs for a Young Heart, then wondered: how might other musicians interpret it?

He asked eight musicians from Portland, Austin, LA, and New York (including members of Radiation City, Ages and Ages, and The Westerlies) to create their own versions, with their own lyrics and, in one section, even melodies. Released in 2017, The Poem Project album could have ended up as a mere gimmick or unbearably repetitive, but the mostly gentle, surprisingly varied results — ranging from folky to ethereal to groovy — demonstrate how robust music can beget — not clone — more vital music. 

Brown’s 2015 PJCE quintet release, Dreaming Awake, extended its predecessor’s accessible jazz rock while featuring most of the same core musicians, augmented by guest string players and vocalists. “My brother recently said that the quintet music felt nostalgic,” Brown says. “Like it was when we were kids in Oregon captured in sound: [growing up in the] forest, outside exploration, uninhibited creative time, a sense of the importance of place, and our place in it. That really resonated because my music is often described as cinematic, which I think is fair, and I do think a lot about mountains and pastoral images when writing or hearing things after they are recorded. Like soaring over the Cascades in song.”

After those recording projects, Brown’s touring schedule with his various bands, especially the Shook Twins, accelerated. He performed with nationally known musicians including jazz/hip hop stars Robert Glasper and Makaya McCraven, singers Ani DiFranco and Gregory Alan Isakov, and more. 

After four years of touring, along with starting a new jazz trio with powerhouse lineup of Portland avant guitarist Mike Gamble and bassist John Lakey, a new duo project with Alex Meltzer, and continuing to process his grief over Ball’s death and his musical response to it, Brown was ready to get off the road. By fall 2018, propelled by a pair of new partnerships — one musical, the other marital — the newly married Brown embarked on still another creative path. 

Korgy & Bass: Brevity and Variety

Freed from the demands and distractions of touring, Brown has devoted most of his abundant energy recently to his inventive Korgy & Bass project with Meltzer, whose background is in beatmaking and hip hop. After meeting at a jam session in 2015 while Brown was still touring with Shook Twins, Meltzer invited him over to see what music might emerge. They released their first EP the next year. 

“Four albums just appeared out of nowhere while I was working on something else,” Brown recalls. “I’ve never had an experience like that. It just felt so easy.”

In various EPs and singles that have unceasingly streamed forth since he forsook the road, Brown and Meltzer are compiling an impressive compendium of concise, cogent, and compelling sounds. The first thing you might notice about most recorded K&B tracks is how short they are, most clocking in under three minutes. On record, the duo generate such a wealth of musical ideas that they seem happy to just keep unleashing rather than overcooking them, never allowing them to overstay their welcome or outlast their considerable charm. 

Live, it’s a different story. “Recorded experiences and live music experiences are different and each has strengths that can be highlighted when in those environments,” Brown explains. “ We stretch out and improvise much more in our live shows because it’s a good environment for that.”

Liberated from the standard jazz or rock band configuration, the lineup can adjust to suit the sounds Brown and Meltzer want to create, from the instrumental (and occasionally vocal) hip hop of this year’s Agrocrag  (which featured vocals from rappers Alexander Mackenzie and Oregon poet laureate Anis Mogjani), to near-Aphex Twin-style electronica in 24000​:​4​=​2500 Side​-​A and 2500​=​4​:​26000 Side​-​B. When working on an instrumental track, Brown will often “hear” (in his imagination) another player’s sound that might add a needed dimension that he can’t imagine. “You hit them up and see if they wanna go play on it,” he says. ”We’re constantly bringing in other ears and energy.”

Meltzer & Brown are Korgy & Bass. Photo: Jordan Sowers.

For last year’s LP Remote, New Orleans trumpeter Cyrus Nabipoor sent the duo melodies and textures (tape drums, sampled sounds, phat synths, trumpet, and bass lines from Milo Fultz and Sam Arnold) that they then added to, chopped, and re-sampled.  “It’s kind of a community with Alex and me at the center,” Brown explains. “But the band is what it is depending on the album, with a different set of musicians every time. It’s really expansive, creatively and conceptually. We can do so much more, depending on who we’re working with and what we’re trying. We’re collaborating a lot.” 

Soulful Sounds

Collaboration has been one of the few constants, the compass in Brown’s meandering creative path. “There are all these great musicians and bands in Portland, and I want to work with those people,” Brown says. “Everyone is good at a different thing. Actively releasing music [with guest artists] is beneficial for the whole scene. We can lift each other up. You can widen your umbrella, grow your community and grow yourself creatively.”

On These Souls, Brown’s collaborators include four singers, three guitarists (along with Brown himself, who also played synthesizers and percussion), three string players, two horn players and a pair of bassists.  “I wanted to challenge myself as a composer,” he remembers, “to do some tracks with vocalists, to arrange it like classical music, to take my first step into being a producer.”

 And he wanted to process his grief over Ball’s death through music. 

“She was a huge part of my life and my mom’s bestie for sure,” Brown recalls. “I still remember she helped me significantly with purchasing a laptop for college. Valeria was so passionate, creative, and uncompromising in her creative pursuits and I carry that with me always.”

A friend from Roseburg, Matt Brown (no relation), whose wife had also danced in Ball’s company, sent him a poem that turned into lyrics and a storyline. When composing the music, Brown was listening to the song cycle Penelope by contemporary composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and singer Shara Worden (now Shara Nova), which he admired for “taking elements from Radiohead and indie rock, but with all this classical instrumentation plus production. I connected with how she was bringing all these elements together.”

Brown released These Souls in May 2020.

Another collaborator was the cover artist, Madge Evers, whose work he’d spotted on Instagram. Finding a visual concept was the final key to unlocking the recordings, which had awaited release for two years. With only four songs, so many collaborators involved (and “the music was going to be a pain in the ass to learn live”), Brown wasn’t planning to tour the song cycle, so this spring’s enforced break from live performance provided an opportune moment to release it.

These Souls’ belated release hardly leaves Brown’s capacious cupboard bare. “Being home for the last two or three years has been a really fruitful transition,” he explains. “I have time and have a studio,  shifts that have allowed me to focus on living a creative life.”

The virus-enforced break from live performance has only granted him more creative space. He’s just finished mixing a trio studio recording of “impressionist folk jazz” laid down last summer, which includes a guest appearance from the acclaimed young Seattle/New York ensemble The Westerlies.

He’s cultivating an album of co-written compositions with various jazz musicians, including veteran Portland jazz guitarist Dan Balmer, Noah Simpson and more. He’s cut a couple of “dark classical indie pop” tracks with Portland harpist/singer Sheers, then there’s a collaboration with Portland’s Brown Calculus “I’m working on in the background.”

Next month, Korgy & Bass will release two tracks and videos recorded on a recent trip to New Orleans. And the next full-length Korgy & Bass album is underway, with Brown, in true 21st century collaborative style, sending tracks to musicians he admires to see if they want to sing on it. He recently got back a track with vocals added by London’s Native Dancer. 

And when the pandemic permits, he’ll be back on stage, with K&B and with his trio.  “I consider myself a performer, so that will always be a huge part of what I do,” Brown says. “What has shifted is this desire to be performing nightly as a sideperson [or] oversaturating my audience. I’ve really enjoyed playing about once a month with each project I lead and making each show a unique experience. Having time to plan and promote has opened a lot of possibilities with collaborations and adding visual elements to our shows.” 

Korgy & Bass performing at OMSI planetarium. Photo: DYSK Photography.

The visual dimension, apparent in record covers and videos, expanded to projections in a multi-sensory experience they designed and performed at Oregon Museum of Science & Industry Planetarium last year.

Brown looks forward to “more arranging, co-writing with vocalists, exploring more writing with strings,” he says. “ A ballet or composing for a play would be a big push and an experience I’d like to have at some point. I hope my continued collaborating brings me to unforeseen and challenging new creative spaces.” Like practically every other musician these days, Brown’s live concert calendar may be on hold, but his ideas and his music keep flowing, urgent and unbound.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

Montavilla Jazz Festival:  Journeys in space and time

Annual jazz celebration culminates in a dazzling musical voyage that transcended today's terrestrial troubles


In 1959 a student at the University of Oregon started singing jazz gigs with other music students, including future master Ralph Towner and Glenn Moore. A year later she moved to San Francisco, married a bandleader named Sonny King and took his last name. Soon she was touring, and for a couple of years you could hear her inventive jazz stylings in the Playboy clubs. (Where you could also take in Nat King Cole and Count Basie). But by 1970 the writing was on the wall: the musical world was not exactly crying out for the next great scat singer. So Nancy King settled down in Eugene to raise her three sons, gigging on weekends in Portland’s Benson Hotel. In 1976 she was featured on First Date, an album by jazz saxophonist Steve Wolfe. But that was it until the 1990s. By then the children were grown, and the fifty-year old singer was ready to embark on the second stage of her career.

Nancy King performed at the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

It wasn’t exactly a belated rocketship ride to the top, but within the niche where the jazz survivors and the new generation carrying on the traditions kept alive their art she began to build a reputation. By 1999 King had reached the point where a reviewer of her album Moon Ray could lead off his rave account with the suggestion that “With the passing of Betty Carter, a case can be made that the mantle as preeminent bop and post-bop vocalist should be draped across the shoulders of Portland, Oregon denizen Nancy King.” In 2007 Ben Ratliff noted in the New York Times that “Musicians eventually spread the word eastward, but it took a long time before anything happened beyond high-quality admiration.” But that had changed at last, he averred: “This is Ms. King’s time; jazz singers in general have become very interested in her.”

Jazz fans are interested too, so much so that I almost missed my chance to hear King, who was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2007, sing on the final night of the the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. I’m glad I didn’t. Her performance was one of those mind-altering excursions into another dimension that temporarily squelched my ability to translate an experience into words, a perfect embodiment of why some of us simply cannot live without the arts. Her set, which for the moment we will file under the cliche “out of this world,” was the culmination of a series of performances I saw during the festival at Portland Metro Arts: George Colligan and his keyboard, guitar and drum combo Other Barry; James Miley’s Watershed Suite; and the return to Portland of native daughter Nicole Glover, with the tenor saxophonist joined by Colligan on piano, John Lakey’s bass, and the drumming of Alan Jones. At each stop on my journeys during the festival, my thoughts kept darting back to the 1950s, and after the first evening’s headline event, the musical high induced by Glover’s brilliance carried with it the shadow of an alternative reality. My ears were in the here and now, but I couldn’t help imagining her blazing performance set in the very different musical world of the mid-1950s.


Jazz Station: musical hub

Storied downtown Eugene jazz club looks to its next chapter


Recently, Ted Ledgard, president of the Jazz Station in Eugene, was catching a show at a jazz venue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he got to talking with one of the patrons of the club. He asked Ledgard where he was from. Hearing his response, the man’s eyes lit up. “Hey, do you know about that jazz club there in Eugene?” he asked eagerly. “It’s called the Jazz Station.” Players he’d met who come through New York had played at the Jazz Station and spoken highly of the experience, he said.

Eugene’s Jazz Station. Photo: Daniel Heila

But while jazz insiders may understand that Eugene’s Jazz Station is a nationally recognized jazz venue, the focal point of the local jazz scene, and a supporter of students of jazz from high school through graduate school, not enough Oregon music lovers appreciate one of the Northwest’s finest jazz clubs. Now, the thirteen‑year‑old nonprofit organization is looking to change that. This Thursday, October 4, the Station hosts a Jazz Rent Party fundraising event, open to the public by RSVP. With its lease expiring in November, the organization is raising funds — for a possible relocation, for expanding public awareness and exposure, and for sustaining its successful model of venue management. After that, the Station’s fall season offers local jazz lovers a cornucopia of events. As we’ll see shortly, recent performances there demonstrate the club’s value to Oregon’s musical culture.


‘The Holler Sessions’ preview: jazz rant

A podcast interview with Seattle theater artist Frank Boyd, whose one-man show is a 'love letter to jazz' disguised as a radio broadcast

Podcast interview by DOUGLAS DETRICK

Editor’s note: Staged as a live jazz radio broadcast, Seattle-based actor/writer Frank Boyd’s one-maniac show The Holler Sessions is a portrait of a jazz-head(case) / radio DJ who evangelizes for the music in uproarious, often profane riffs. The show originated at Seattle’s On the Boards and went on to well-received performances in New York and beyond. In this podcast, ArtsWatch contributing writer Douglas Detrick, who’s executive director of Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, interviews Boyd about this production, which even includes some live music. Click on the embedded player below to hear the conversation.

Frank Boyd created and stars in “The Holler Sessions” at Artists Repertory Theatre.

The Holler Sessions runs at Artist’s Repertory Theatre this week only, March 8-11. Use the discount code HOLLER20 for $5 off your ticket at www.artistsrep.org/ or by calling 503.241.1278.

Want to read more about Oregon jazz and theater? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

‘Oregonophony’ review: turning place into sound

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble concerts feature original music incorporating recorded sounds of Oregon -- but not necessarily the sounds you’d expect


What does Oregon sound like? For its spring 2017 concert, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) sought proposals from Oregon composers for music that would incorporate recorded sounds from Oregon. The music selected for Oregonophony evolved from the diverse auditory inspirations of two experienced professionals and three emerging jazz composers.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performed ‘Oregonophony’ in Salem and Portland. Photo: Lynn Darroch.

Assimilating sounds of Oregon into the five musical pieces underscored the presence and importance of external sounds as part of our contemporary musical palette and of our lives. For me, this concert also reflected in music the way Oregon is changing.


Anat Cohen and Eliane Elias previews: double dose of Brazilian jazz

Two PDXJazz concerts this week showcase fruitful combinations of Brazilian and American music


Fifty-seven years after the birth of bossa nova, Brazilian music continues to stir up listeners with its danceable rhythms, beguiling melodies, and sweet soft Portuguese lyrics. In less than a week, Portlanders will have the chance to hear radically different styles of buoyant Brazilian jazz from two popular artists.

Eliane Elias. Photo: Daniel Azoulay.

Anat Cohen and Eliane Elias are as versatile as their music is varied. Elias sings and plays piano; Cohen plays clarinet and saxophone, though the clarinet will take the lead for this concert. Composers and arrangers as well as performers, both artists are admired for their energetic and appealing stage presences; they usually have audiences on their feet, begging for more.

Both sell out their concerts when they visit Portland (and Elias anywhere she goes, including Japan and London). Cohen plays with Trio Brasileiro May 4 at the Old Church, and Elias performs May 9 at Winningstad Theatre, a venue she filled in 2016 at the PDX Jazz Festival. Both shows are nearly sold out.

Expect to hear lots of cuts from their new releases, including Cohen’s Outra Coisa: The Music of Moacir Santos with guitarist Marcello Goncalves and Rosa Dos Ventos (Wind Rose), recorded with Trio Brasileiro, whom she’ll play with at the Portland gig. Elias’s latest album, Dance of Time, released earlier this spring, is a tribute to the samba.

Anat Cohen: Beguiled by Brazil

Named Clarinetist of the Year for nine straight years by the Jazz Journalist Association, virtuosa clarinetist Cohen lives in New York and grew up in Israel with her musician brothers, saxophonist Yuval and trumpeter Avishai. In the last several years, Brazilian choro music stole her heart. “I disappear inside choro,” Cohen said from New York City earlier this spring. “I am completely in love with it.”

Anat Cohen & Trio Brasileiro perform at Portland Old Church Thursday.

Choro, translated as “cry” or “lament,” is considered the first urban music of Brazil, originating in Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th century. The music usually has a fast upbeat tempo and leaves plenty of room for improvisation. “As a clarinetist, I can be the soloist or join in the counterpoint with the 7-string guitar,” she explains. “As with the style of early New Orleans jazz, choro functions on group polyphony where everyone has a role yet it’s open and free-spirited, with simultaneous melodies happening. It can be groove-oriented like a party, or it can be full of saudade, of longing. It can be demanding and require virtuosity. It is a perfect mix of classical music and jazz, where it demands precision” though each musician can add interpretation.

Now that she has caught the Brazil bug, Cohen visits the country often, performing, recording and jamming. “I fell in love with the Brazilian way of life,” she says. “I feel alive there. When I first went to Brazil, I immediately felt that music there doesn’t just belong to musicians but to everyone, as part of their daily lives. Some people play, some sing, some dance, some clap along. It’s part of the social fabric. I like that.”

Trio Brasileiro (Dudu Maia on bandolim, the Brazilian mandolin, and two brothers, 7-string guitarist Douglas Lora and percussionist Alexandre Lora) met Cohen in Port Townsend, Wash. at the Centrum workshops, a choro-music hotspot. Formed in 2011, Trio Brasileiro is dedicated to performing traditional choro music as well as their own contemporary choro compositions. For their latest album, Rosa Dos Ventos, the four musicians lived together in Brazil for a week, composing arranging and recording.

But the music, wherever played, “is inseparable from the culture,” Cohen insists. “In Brazil, boom, you’re there and the music starts. A little mandolin, a bit of guitar, then the clarinet. You’re just hanging out, having some beers, and someone’s going to take the instruments out and the listeners are going to become part of the scene.”

Eliane Elias: Total immersion 

Eliane Elias has lived in the Big Apple since 1981, but her roots are Brazilian. Born in Sao Paulo, she studied piano as a child. At 17 she worked with singer/songwriter Toquinho and with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s lyricist, poet Vinicius Moraes. Considered one of Jobim’s best interpreters, she will be joined in Portland by her trio with Brazilians Rubens de La Corte on guitar and drummer Rafael Barata. Bassist Marc Johnson doubles as Elias’ husband and business partner.

Elias has been making albums since 1984. On her first, Amanda, she collaborated with her former husband, trumpeter Randy Brecker; they named the album for their daughter, also a musician. She has seven Grammy nominations and in 2016 won a Grammy in the Best Latin Jazz Album category for Made in Brazil.

Her creative process often trumps the details of everyday life. When called for this interview at her New York City apartment after a trip to Europe, where she sold out numerous concerts, she was in the midst of a arranging and composing. Totally immersed in the music, she’d forgotten to eat dinner, among other things.

“The creative process is a great joy of mine,” Elias explains. “And there’s the discipline. When I was young, everyone else was going to the beach or to parties when I was at the piano. I’m no lazybones. Success is is a combination of talent, a strong will to do things, and hard work.”

Her silky, sultry alto has ripened and lowered as she has aged, giving her greater range.“Being born in Brazil, I was classically trained and became an improviser and composer at a young age,” she recalls. “I always have done a variety of music. I’m never bored.”

Neither are her many fans. With more than 2 million album sales, Elias is wildly popular in Europe and Japan, perhaps more so than in the U.S. She has no intention of slowing down on stage or off, she says. “The music is the motivation for everything I do.”

PDX Jazz presents Anat Cohen & Trio Brasileiro, 7:30 p.m. May 4, The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave., and Eliane Elias, 7:30 p.m. May 9, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, Portland. Tickets information online  or call 503-228-5299.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

Dave Holland Trio preview: All about the bass

Jazz bassist and bandleader’s starry career has a Portland connection


Even before he steps onstage for his Friday concert in Portland, Dave Holland has made a sizable contribution to Oregon jazz. The world renowned jazz bassist owns the upright bass instrument that belonged to the  late “The Walker” Leroy Vinnegar. “Rather, I’m its custodian,” Holland said this spring from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. Holland restored the water-damaged instrument, but the bass, he says, “will always be Leroy’s.”

Dave Holland’s Trio adds guest Chris Potter.

His purchase helped establish the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute within Portland State University’s Department of Music in 2002, three years after Vinnegar, who taught at PSU, died in Portland. Its mission is to “let knowledge serve the city” through programs and partnerships in jazz education and jazz history, public outreach, and service to the artistic community. It’s kind of repayment of an artistic debt, because it was Vinnegar’s music that helped inspire Holland to pick up the bass in the first place — a decision that led him to jazz stardom.

PDXJazz brings Holland back to Portland at 8 p.m. Friday, April 7, in Revolution Hall, 1300 S.E. Stark St., with drummer Eric Harland, saxophonist Chris Potter, and guitarist Kevin Eubanks. “The four of us have played together quite a lot. I can’t tell you what we’ll be playing,” Holland said, though no doubt they’ll perform cuts from Aziza and Prism, recent CDs. “It will be a surprise to me.”

Dave Holland performs Friday at Revolution Hall.

Holland’s Vinnegar link and love reach back into the late 1950s and early ‘60s. As a teenager growing up in Wolverhampton in England’s Midlands, he haunted record stores for bassist Ray Brown’s albums and came across Vinnegar’s Leroy Walks and Leroy Walks Again!

After hearing Vinnegar and Brown, he put down his guitar and took up the bass. He argues that bass players get plenty of love: More music listeners are fond of the bass than groan at its solos, he says. “A lot of people love the bass, its sounds. Maybe it’s less featured than other instruments, not upfront all the time, but it’s so essential. Everyone feels it if it’s not there. Everyone loves a good bass line, a good riff, a good groove.”

Holland grew up in a working-class family with his grandfather, uncle, mother and grandmother (his father left when he was a baby). He played ukulele and guitar as a kid and was constantly composing, practicing, thinking about music. He decided with a minimum of angst to drop out of school at 15, which he said gave him “a burst of intensity to be a musician.” In his late teens when he moved to London, he studied with London Philharmonic’s bassist James Merrett, who encouraged Holland to enter London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, from where he graduated and still occasionally teaches.

Holland with Miles Davis.

Holland has been playing bass for 55 years, and at 70, looks as spry as he did when he wore a dashiki in Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew-era band during the late ‘60s, if his hair and beard are shorter and grayer than in those heady days. Davis discovered Holland when he walked in to London’s Ronnie Scott Jazz Club to hear pianist Bill Evans’s trio (with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Eddie Gomez). The already legendary trumpeter heard Holland the same night, though not with Evans. As Holland says, “Then Miles offered me an opportunity to play with him. … The universe sent me this amazing gift. I played three weeks at the Count Basie. He never said I had the gig, and he never said I didn’t.”

If Miles helped boost Holland’s early career, Holland has continued to grow and produce good music. He’s a newly anointed National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (joining 144 recipients since the honor began in 1965) and a sought-after and much recorded musician. Holland has recorded over 100 albums, led 30 bands, and won multiple Grammy awards. Name any major jazz musician in the past half-century, and he’s likely played with them:  Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, Anthony Braxton, Gary Burton, Sam Rivers, Roy Orbison, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Barron, Oscar Peterson, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell. The list goes on and on.

Holland still speaks with a British accent though he moved to the United States when he was 21. Periodically, he crosses the pond to teach and play. He likes to cross-pollinate with younger musicians, and teaches at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Boston’s Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music.

“We learn from each other in this community,” Holland says. “I’ll hear something that will show me something. What goes around comes around. There is never a shortage of fired-up young musicians moving the music forward.”

Music keeps you young, the late and fellow English-born musician Marian McPartland of National Public Radio’s Piano Jazz program said, and Holland is a preeminent example. In robust health (he had a bout with heart trouble when he was 36 but has thoroughly recovered), he maintains constant receptiveness to new sounds and styles, and a steady work ethic. “I never minded practicing,” he declares. “Never.” Holland continues to be inspired by Spanish cellist Pablo Casals’ words about longevity in the music world. “He said ‘I keep thinking I can get a little better.’”

Not only does Holland play with jazz virtuosos and record on his own label, Dare2, he stretches into other musical realms: flamenco, classical, and recently, he has been working with Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. “The kind of music you play has more do with the musicians you play with than anything else,” Holland explains. He likes the change-ups, the diversity. “It keeps everything moving to reach across genres. It feeds my creative fire. Music is a journey. It takes you through many landscapes.”

Dave Holland Trio with guest Chris Potter perform at 8 p.m. Friday, April 7, in Revolution Hall, 1300 S.E. Stark St. Tickets and info online.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

Want to read more about Oregon jazz? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!