One Sunday evening, not too long ago, I wandered north of the city to see Holly Hopkins at the Old Town Public House in Cornelius. Joined by Doc Wayne on steel strings, Mike Zinna slinging a gypsy guitar, and George Hoar on upright bass and keyboard, the foursome played a show of Romani romance that scratched that itch for the elusive chord transitions and rapturous rhapsodies of the gypsy style, all within a casual ambiance.
The group played Louie Armstrong’s “Saint Louis Blues,” seasoning it with a nice dose of paprika with Mike’s Django jangle dancing chords, while George walked alongside with the bass. As they played, the band bobbed their heads with glee. Something special was happening. Holly’s voice was like a warm chocolate ganache, the smooth sweetness drizzled onto a spongy wave of sound. The instrumental break in “Old Devil Moon” was a serendipitous scintillating series of synaptic pyrotechnics, the combination of fourteen strings and a whole lot of talent.
As Holly crooned the lyrics to “Georgia on My Mind,” she added a playful edge to the romance of the song. Her voice was as sweet and subtly textured as the first bite of a perfectly ripe peach. In Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache” Holly’s voice climbed like morning glories on a trellis of bass notes, brilliantly colored by the guitars, as the eponymous heartache was owned and pwned.
Mike and George played a couple of Django songs as if they were alone, getting the place swaying and swinging. Small groups in the audience chatted and a young man came in with a bearded dragon on his shoulder. The lizard’s name was Gilbert. Gilbert was introduced to the only baby in attendance. They seemed to hit it off.
For a bossa nova tune, Holly’s vocals slid into the deep bass groove, bouncing over Doc Wayne’s sun-kissed chords. In “The Thrill is Gone,” Holly’s voice was fuller and fuller, starting out seeking, searching with waves of sound for that thrill that had left, gradually reaching an apogee of contentment. Holly owns the lyrics she sings. Meanwhile, the guys on the strings did some magical things, each taking turns to deliver some soulful solos, with Holly slapping out rhythms on her trusty cajón.
When Holly and the band struck up the slow, sultry vocals of “Summertime,” I got chills up and down my back. Accompanied by languid guitar chords, the vocals were a tantalizingly slow swirl, hypnotic and beautiful. Then, the band kicked up, turning the tune into a jazzy bass-driven romp up and down the scale, like climbing a mountain after a big meal.
When they covered “Dance Me to the End of Love,” Doc Wayne played double Dutch with his guitar turning ropes of sound while George added a hint of mystery with the clean vibrations on pizzicato bass, going arco for a syncopated palpitating solo. Holly’s vocals were pleading and convincing, like the first slide into a bed with clean sheets, or the first moment of eye contact with someone you know will change your life forever.
Holly Hopkins Jazz, in whatever grouping you may encounter them, is a live performance that you should not miss, whether you consider yourself a jazz fan or not. Touring musicians, such as the indomitable Mike Zinna and the genius George Hoar, push Holly’s vocals to the limits of possibility, while at her side sits Doc Wayne, coaxing secrets from his guitar. They perform often, so chances are you’ll have an opportunity to see Holly Hopkins Jazz within the next few weeks in and around the Queen City.