One of the most sought-after musicians in the jazz, rock, and blues arenas, Jay is known for his saxophone and flute work with many artists including Gregg Allman, Allman Brothers Band, Andrew Hill, Levon Helm (of The Band), Jacky Terrasson, James Hunter, Bobby Sanabria, and (the late) LeRoy Vinnegar.
"Jazz is a huge part of what I learned about music, but it's just a 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 funky New Orleans style into a modern patchwork of root-bound sound, though his fluidity and flights of improvisation as well as his music's attitude could have only been inspired by jazz.
Coming up as a young player in the late '80s and early '90s 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 LA had migrated there in the '80s for the quality of life," he explains. "You could still learn to play just by hanging around older musicians and picking it up that way." 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.
By 1993 Collins had established himself in New York, assembled a band and by the mid-'90s had recorded three instrumental jazz sax records, Uncommon Threads, Reality Tonic and Cross Culture. He recorded and toured with French pianist Jacky Terrasson and gigged with Andrew Hill whom he'd met in his Portland days. "The cool thing about being in the East Village in the '90s was there were still a lot of artists living there and there was all kinds of music going on… jazz venues 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 the late '90s leading local sensations Mambo Macoco and played with Nuyorican percussionist Bobby Sanabria Y Ascension, touring Cuba and the Caribbean with them. "Learning about Afro-Cuban rhythms and their connections to New Orleans music are the keys to what I'm doing now," says Collins.
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 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); the pair married in 2007 and since then, Collins has gone on to play with Amy's dad, Levon Helm, as a member of Helm's Midnight Ramble (he also toured in 2006 with English neo-soulman James Hunter).
Collin's latest recording, The Songird and the Pigeon, emphasizes diversity--an equal measure of roots music as well as Latin percussion--and a growing confidence in his singing and songwriting abilities. Recorded in Brooklyn at the Bunker Studios, the album once again features Dred Scott and Diego Voglino along with Tim Luntzel on bass and Moses Patrou on vocals. Guitarists Ed Cherry and Chris Bergson sit-in as does guitarist Scott Sharrad who came in for the recording and ended up staying with the band. Amy Helm is also on board for a vocal appearance on the gospel-tinted "Waltz for a Boy."
"We pared things down…it's a stronger, more unified record," says Collins. The Nawlins-grooved title song takes on spirituality versus religion while Collins also included what he calls some of his "stranger" pieces, like the beat-inspired "Financial Consultation, a poem set to an Afro-Cuban percussion section. "Shotgun Past" is a "murky, strange, John Lee Hooker kind of thing, with humor interjected." And there's the playful funk of "The Money Hole:" "That's the one where we really open it up," he says.
The album closes with the old time saloon sound of "My Dreams Came Back Last Night," delivered just by Collins on vocals and Scott on piano. "On the first record I wouldn't have attempted anything like that. I wasn't confident enough to pull that off before, but my powers as a singer have started to equal where I am instrumentally," he says. "It wasn't easy to suddenly shoot off in another direction and it's been a process of finding the courage," he says. "I think I've come a long way as a singer and songwriter and this is the first recording I've made which fulfills the impulse I had to expand when I turned 30. I've finally made the record I was capable of making."