How do you make a comeback to a music scene that has gone through so many radical changes since your departure? The answer, as Christopher Hollyday has discovered, involves a combination of focus, perseverance, and the will to keep moving forward with no regrets.
In 1993, after releasing four well-regarded albums with the RCA/Novus label and touring the world for more than 200 nights a year since being signed in 1989, he was met with the news that Novus had closed for business. Hollyday had been critically hailed as one of the most gifted young lions of the late 1980s and early ’90s, but suddenly he found himself at a crossroads that would define the rest of his life — and he was barely 23 years old.
"I was blessed to live in New York in 1988 and record four albums with jazz masters such as Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, David Williams, Billy Higgins, Wallace Roney, Brad Mehldau, Kenny Werner and my bebop brother [drummer] Ron Savage," Hollyday recalls today. "But with Novus ceasing to exist, touring and recording became impossible, so I jumped back into school at Berklee [College of Music]. I finally learned how to read and write music, then I got married, moved to San Diego in 1996, and I taught school music for about 25 years."
His career as an educator gave him a refreshing new perspective on the music, where the positive exchanges between teacher and student began to reshape and strengthen his own playing. Hollyday started performing again regularly in 2013, leading a formidable quintet of seasoned San Diego-based players from several generations. From there, he decided it was time to go back into the recording studio, and he released
the self-produced Telepathy in 2018 — his first album in almost 26 years, and a return that was lauded by the local press as "heavy on intuitive communication and one-hundred-proof bebop."
Dialogue is the eagerly awaited second chapter of Hollyday’s heralded comeback. Here he reunites the same band — bassist Rob Thorsen, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, pianist Joshua White and young drummer Tyler Kreutel — for another foray into unfettered bebop that includes hot-blooded takes on some popular jazz and jazz-influenced works, as well as three of Hollyday’s own compositions.
"I wanted to do a follow-up record with the same band," he explains. "The only difference is that I have more to say. It’s a reference to the dialogue we have on stage every week when we play."
On Hollyday’s 24-bar blues "Text Tones," which follows the lively opening title track, White literally bursts out of the gate with a feverish, jangling commentary. Further on, everyone gets a turn at expressing the melody for "You Make Me Feel So Young," followed by a round-robin of sterling solos. According to Hollyday, "It reminds me of my wife, Janet… the introduction is from Mel Torme and the arrangement comes from the great Billy Taylor. Joshua and I have a real conversation in the beginning. It’s one of my favorite moments."
Horace Silver’s "Kiss Me Right" was an unplanned selection, culled from memory on the spot when Hollyday realized they still had some time in the studio. "It comes off as being real fresh because of its impromptu nature," he reveals. "Joshua came up with the introduction and then we do the classic Horace Silver arrangement." "On The Trail," by Ferde Grofé, sounds like it might be an outtake from the Sonny Rollins classic Way Out West. It’s a favorite of Castellanos, and his performance serves as a reminder that he is one of the finest working trumpeters in jazz today.
Another Hollyday original, "Paid Time Off," began as an arrangement of "Get Out Of Town," but soon transformed into its own distinct entity. "It’s kind of a shuffle feel in the tradition of early Jazz Messengers," says the composer. Like most of the music on Dialogue, swing is the primary language being spoken.
"Pau De Arara," a Brazilian folk song arranged by Lalo Schifrin for Dizzy Gillespie, is notable for the amazing tambourine introduction by Kreutel, which frames the tune beautifully. And Hollyday’s breathtaking interpretation of Sammy Cahn’s immortal "Dedicated To You" comes off as more romantic than five candle-lit dinners, and bluer than Frank Sinatra without a date at a 3:00 a.m. "last call."
At a time when full-length CDs and LPs seem to have been all but abandoned in favor of unlimited streaming, a carefully crafted album like Dialogue might feel like a throwback — and in a way, it is just that, conjuring up a bygone jazz era of smoky nightclubs, rain-slogged streets and the sound of heavyweights like Coltrane, Getz, Konitz and Young. But as an educator, Hollyday is also keenly aware that younger players must be encouraged if the music is expected to evolve, adapt and survive.
"The process of knowing the language, and living it, and falling in love with the music, and finding heroes, and adopting that hero, is a very important thing that we talk about,"
Hollyday tells Jazz Times in a recent interview. "For me, it was hearing Charlie Parker when I was 11 or 12 and how commanding his sound was. But jazz is the one constant for me, with all the stuff I’ve been through in my life. All the good stuff, all the bad stuff — everything I did has been about the music, whether it’s the playing, the learning, the teaching, the friends, the business, the living. The music has always been what’s most important."