Marge Calhoun was a different kind of person before Ron Holloway came into her life. For starters, she was a straight-up country singer, one who flaunted the twang in her pipes and dreamed of a little big-hat glory. She was neither an improviser nor an abstractionist, but a singer of stories. “As a matter of fact,” she giggles, “earlier last year, I was doing a session in Nashville, and my producer wanted to add saxophone. And I said to him, ‘Clearly, I’m not really a saxophone person.’”
Ron Holloway is a saxophone person—one of the premier players in the area. Just check his resume: He’s sat in with Sonny Rollins and collaborated with Gil Scott-Heron. He was a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, and he has recorded four discs of his own for the Milestone label. He also performs incessantly: Over the course of a recent week that was capped by a gig with Calhoun opening for Shania Twain, Holloway played “straight-ahead jazz” at a wedding, blues with Whop Frazier, and “a New Orleans kind of thing” at a local club.
The seed for Holloway and Calhoun’s musical partnership was planted more than 10 years ago, when Holloway, a Joni Mitchell fan, first started thinking that he’d like to get together with an acoustic guitarist. “I’d always liked that sound,” he says, “combining the heavier sound of the tenor saxophone with the lighter sound of the acoustic strings.”
For Holloway, Mitchell came in the form of Calhoun when he met the singer at a Baltimore club last winter and told her of his idea. Soon thereafter, the two jammed: Calhoun played some of her own songs while Holloway riffed all over them. Things progressed quickly from there. “We put together a sort of local Borders tour,” Holloway explains, “which was actually a very good thing to do because it was like jumping in the water to find out if you could instinctively swim.”
The performers have been testing their musical instincts since January, playing both as a duo and as a trio, with percussionist Gary Crockett. Their music is less country than the Shania Twain gig might suggest, and although Holloway cites Mitchell’s work with saxophonist Wayne Shorter as an inspiration, his work with Calhoun is neither angular nor particularly arty. Calhoun is a gritty singer whose voice has been aged in barrooms, and when Holloway improvises around her he lets fly his penchant for boogie. The end result is a kind of cut-loose blues in which both players break partially free from themselves.
Holloway explains that “the difference between what Marge’s writing now from what she’s written in the past is that her stories originate in the city. They’re more urban tales, as opposed to boy-meets-girl-in-the-Everglades.”—Brett Anderson
Marge Calhoun and Ron Holloway play during brunch every Sunday at Vienna’s Grill. They will also play June 8 at Lewie’s in Bethesda at 8:30 p.m., and June 12 at the Alexandria Red Cross Waterfront Festival at 12:30 p.m.