"Jazz is a huge part of what I learned about music, but it's just a small piece of what I do," says singer-songwriter, saxophonist, flautist, pianist and
“Jazz is a huge part of what I learned about music, but it’s just a small piece of what I do,” says singer-songwriter, saxophonist, flautist, pianist and bandleader Jay Collins. With his Kings County Band, Collins mixes up blues, Afro-Cuban rhythms and classic soul into a modern patchwork of root-bound sound.
One of the most sought-after touring musicians in American music, Jay is perhaps best known for his saxophone and flute work with many artists including Gregg Allman, Allman Brothers Band, Levon Helm (of The Band), Donald Fagen and the Dukes of September (w/ Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs), James Hunter and jazz greats such as the late Andrew Hill, Jacky Terrasson, and the late bassist LeRoy Vinnegar. In recent years, Mr. Collins has also become recognized for his gritty singing and his singular songwriting.
“Collins’ soulful croak definitely deserves to be heard” – Time Out, NYC
Coming up as a young player on the late ’80s and early ’90s music scene in Portland, Oregon, Collins caught what he considers to be the city’s last wave of a golden age.
“Lots of jazz musicians from L.A. had migrated there in the ’80s for the quality of life,” he explains. “You could still learn to play just by hanging around with older musicians, and learning “on the job.” Collins played some of his first sax gigs with Portland jazz mainstays Ron Steen and Mel Brown then went on to play with West Coast bassist Leroy Vinnegar and to record with hard bop drummer Dick Berk.
After cutting his teeth in Portland, Jay Collins made the move to New York City and quickly became a force to be reckoned with. His focus was hard-hitting instrumental jazz. By 1993 Collins had established himself in New York’s East Village, assembled a band, and by the end of the ’90s had recorded three CD’s:Uncommon Threads, Reality Tonic and Cross Culture, all on small independent labels. He recorded and toured with French pianist Jacky Terrasson on Blue Note Records as well as the legendary pianist and composer Andrew Hill, whom he’d first met in his Portland days. “In the East Village in the ’90s there was all kinds of music going on….little places with live bands every couple of blocks.”
During his time on New York’s Lower East Side, Collins also immersed himself in the rhythmically charged world of Latin music. He spent 1996-2004 leading local sensation Mambo Macoco (with master percussionist Eddie Bobe’), playing with Nuyorican percussionist Bobby Sanabria Y Ascension, and touring Cuba and the Caribbean. “Learning about Afro-Cuban rhythms and their connection to American and New Orleans music are the keys to what I’m doing now,” says Collins.
“This robust tenor saxophonist is a great example of a player whose varied experiences nurture a deeper musical personality.” – Village Voice, NYC
In 1999 Collins felt the pull to change musical direction; he formed a new band and began to move beyond the boundaries of instrumental jazz. “I needed something more…. I wanted to express myself more fully with words. I was into experimental jazz and had always liked words and poetry so at first I tried putting my poetry to music,” he says, though he didn’t actually sing a note until he was 30 years old. ”
At first, my idea was to write the songs and have someone else sing them, but then I decided to take singing lessons and get into it.” Collins also kept up his sax and flute chops as a sideman while working out his own songs on piano. Ironically it was while playing a jazz gig that he was recommended for a spot with legendary rocker Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. “I knew the songs of Robert Johnson, Freddie King, B.B. King and the Allman Brothers because I grew up hearing them,” he says.
“My stepfather is a guitar player, he’s African-American, and his record collection was heavy on the blues. Working with Gregg sent me back in that blues and roots direction. It’s also really informed my singing. I’ve learned a lot just from being onstage, night after night, standing next to that caliber of singer.” In 2004, the first album by the Jay Collins Band, Poem For Today (Hipbone Records) featured Collins on sax and vocals, Dred Scott on piano and Diego Voglino on drums and Moses Patrou on percussion and backing vocals. “I was still transitioning from instrumental jazz. The vocal influences are mostly Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Dr. John,” says Collins. At the recording sessions, Collins met vocalist Amy Helm (Ollabelle), and since then, Collins has gone on to tour and record with Amy’s dad, Levon Helm, the drummer and lead-singer from The Band, Jay had the pleasure of playing on Levon’s Grammy-winning CD, “Electric Dirt” in 2009.
While continuing to tour with Gregg Allman, and front Jay Collins and The Kings County Band, Jay has also worked during the last few years with British neo-soulman James Hunter, singer Ray LaMontagne, drummer Jaimoe’s Jazz Band, guitarist/singer Chris Bergson, jazz guitarist Ed Cherry, and toured from 2010-2012 with the Dukes of September (featuring Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, and Michael McDonald). Jay’s arranging, musical directing, and horn playing skills are featured on Gregg Allman Band’s 2015 DVD/CD release, “Back to Macon, GA” on Rounder Records.
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