Ron Holloway comes home to D.C. for a rare show at Blues Alley
As saxophonist Ron Holloway tries to explain why he's no longer a fixture on the Washington club scene, the answer quickly becomes apparent.
His iPhone chimes; it's a text message from guitarist Warren Haynes, a member of the Allman Brothers Band and frontman for Gov't Mule. Haynes is writing to confirm yet another booking -- Holloway will join Gov't Mule onstage the next night in Richmond.
The Washington native's conspicuous absence in and around town -- he returns to Blues Alley on Saturday night for the first time in several years -- has a lot to do with the fact that a remarkable array of prominent rock and blues musicians have his number.
Bred on bebop, Holloway befriended jazz legends Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins early on, long before recording a series of well-received, major-label jazz albums in the '90s. Before becoming a recording artist in his own right, he supported other musicians in Washington and on the road, including memorable stints with musician-poet Gil Scott-Heron ("He would always create this meditative vibe in concert") and absurdist rocker Root Boy Slim ("That's when I knew I had joined the circus"). A decade ago, it was impossible to scan regional club listings without realizing how busy Holloway was on the local front.
Several connections with well-known musicians have followed in recent years: gigs with Little Feat, Shemekia Copeland, Derek Trucks, Taj Mahal, Carlos Santana; tours with the Allmans and Gov't Mule; a four-year run in blues singer Susan Tedeschi's band. Suffice it to say that the 56-year-old reedman has been on the road a lot.
Holloway's enthusiasm for straightahead jazz remains undiminished. A conversation with the multiple Washington Area Music Association award-winner (42 Wammies at last count) is peppered with anecdotes about his first encounter with trumpet legend Gillespie -- in 1977, at the now defunct Showboat Lounge in Silver Spring -- and his early, profoundly influential experiences with fellow tenor saxophonist Rollins, now a close friend and supporter.
But Holloway attributes his popularity in rock and blues circles to the fact that he has never dismissed other musical forms. After all, he says, "when I'm playing with an R&B or blues group, somewhere in the back of my consciousness I know that it's always possible to make a beautiful statement using a simple form."
The trick in any musical setting, as Holloway sees it, is to project your own personality without compromising the aims of the band or losing sight of the audience's expectations.
He credits his long tenure with Scott-Heron in the '80s for preparing him for the some of the supporting roles he plays today. "You were very much in the zone playing with Gil," he says. "As a musician, you felt like he put you in the position of a character actor. You were interpreting the mood of the piece, the message in his lyrics."
The rock and blues stars Holloway collaborates with these days are aware of his strong ties to Gillespie and other jazz greats. "But they also know that I don't go onstage thinking that I have to play down to any audience," he says. "When my solo comes around, that's the time to communicate my feelings. I usually play in context at first, then stretch the boundaries a little -- maybe toss in some things that reflect my other musical experiences -- then end in a way that's not going to throw anybody off. I like adding some surprises, though. That can only be a good thing."
At Blues Alley, the saxophonist will get a chance to play jazz, pop and soul for a hometown crowd with a big assist from vocalist Julia Nixon. But who knows when he'll be back.
"All the relationships I have with the musicians I've been playing with recently are ongoing things," he says. "So I guess I haven't made any enemies."
Joyce is a freelance writer.
RON HOLLOWAY Appearing Saturday with Julia Nixon at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Shows start at 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets: $25. 202-337-4141. http:/