Behold the passion of a convert.
In a cramped, disheveled radio studio that sometimes doubles as his sleeping quarters, Ray, a bearded man with glazed eyes and manic moods, is lit by a fiery spirit. He bolts suddenly from his chair, as if a ping-pong ball were bouncing in his soul.
He shakes and shimmies, arms stretching out to transmit the electricity he feels away from his body, that vessel for indescribable pain and pleasure. He turns off the lights and sits quietly, drinking up sacred sounds.
Ray’s wildness is spurred not by the revelations of any religion. He is over the moon for jazz, and as a late-night radio DJ he celebrates its pantheon of deities — Charlie Parker, Nina Simone, Miles Davis — with the gusto of a true believer.
And theatergoers are all the better for it. Ray is the creation of writer-performer Frank Boyd. The character is our guide to the sublime pleasures of jazz in “The Holler Sessions,” an absorbing and incantatory 80-minute show at the Guthrie Theater.
“Holler Sessions” premiered in 2015 in Seattle, Boyd’s base, before embarking on a world tour. A straightforward description of the show does it no justice. In “Holler Sessions,” a Kansas City radio host plays music and talks at (and sometimes with) his audience. The end.
But the jazz in “Holler Sessions” is not just music. It’s a conduit to salvation. In one bit, Ray reads an in-flight magazine, critiques the bad writing, then finally throws the publication over his shoulder, saying “Save us, Duke Ellington.”
The playlist offers a survey of tunes by jazz giants: Charles Mingus’ “Better Git Hit in Your Soul”; Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues”; “Blues for Yolande” by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster; Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green.”
In program notes, Boyd writes that he felt shame and guilt that he only discovered jazz in his 30s, and that he had learned about things like the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — Christopher Columbus’ ships — before he learned anything about America’s great music.
He writes that he cannot fully articulate what makes jazz so powerful: “It’s our history, I guess. It’s all in there — all the hope and pain and joy and ambition and swagger and contradiction and violence and optimism and injustice and creativity that makes up the American character.”
That’s a tall order. But “Holler Sessions,” which ends with a beautiful surprise, honors the music’s genius. It’s a show that’s like a great record. You’ll want to experience it again.