A knuckle-knocking piano teacher led Vanessa Collier to play saxophone instead, and music lovers are better for it.
Collier, 28, is a rising blues star with three albums who is on her first major West Coast tour.
“I love the blues community because it is so tight knit,” Collier told Tahoe Onstage. “They really care for each one of the artists who rolls through. I’m not straight up the middle. I play saxophone in a guitar-heavy genre and I thought that was going to be more of an uphilll battle than it is.
“They like my take on the blues and they realize I am playing the roots of the music but go out into the outer branches, as well. Then I will stem from that music. Country and gospel all have the same roots as blues — the same way as funk and rock is an offshoot of blues music.”
As a girl growing up in Maryland, Collier took piano lessons for six months before she had had enough of a teacher who used to smack her fingers during practice. Then, she heard a saxophone on television.
“Something about that sound just grabbed me,” she said. “I didn’t even know what that instrument was, but I needed to play it. My mom finally caved in and a rented one, then gave me one, and I haven’t put it down since.”
Collier’s first music teacher was bad, but she had a great one in Chris Vadala, who played saxophone for 20 years with Chuck Mangione. One of the first things Vadala did was introduce Collier to the music of saxophone great Cannonball Adderley.
“I studied with Chris for seven years and, man, he took me down every path,” Collier said. “He taught me jazz and funk and R&B. He taught me the James Brown stuff and he guided me into a lot of different directions. At the same time, we were studying classical saxophone repertoire, like playing with an orchestra and with a full-on ensemble. I got a broad view of it and I came to love every aspect of the instrument.
“The sound of a saxophone can go from a scream to something very subtle and soft. It has a wide range of emotions, much like the human voice. I found my home in the blues and the funk and the soul stuff.”
Collier had a dual major and she finished Berklee College of Music’s five-year program in four. She credits stage performance classes as her way to overcome her shyness. Moreover, college kindled an alacrity for musical exploration.
“It did what every college education I believe should do: Open the doors and crack your eyes wide open to what all the possibilities that there are. And it sparked my own education past college to be like, ‘Oh I really want to dig more into this. Again, for me, it was the blues, the funk, the soul, which I am still digging through trying to find all the cool stuff.”
After school, Collier hit the road as a side player for a year-and-a-half with Blues Hall of Fame member Joe Louis Walker. A historian in many subjects, most of all music, Walker shared his knowledge with Collier.
“I always feel like I can learn more and that I don’t know enough,” Collier said. “(Walker) allowed me to get my feet wet without having to jump out there and do my own thing right away. But he was pretty quick to tell me, ‘You write music. Get out there on your own.’ ”
After last summer’s album release, “Honey Up,” listeners took notice on a national level. She’s a five-time Blues Music Award nominee, including for 2019 Best Contemporary Female Artist. Collier won the honor for Instrumentalist of the Year – Horn. She wrote nine of the 10 songs on her “Honey Up” album. She sings lead and background and plays alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones, and acoustic and resonator guitars.
Collier and the artist who won the 2019 BMA for Best Contemporary Female Artist, Danielle Nicole, both perform this summer at Bluesdays at Squaw Valley for the first time. Collier appeared June 25 and Danielle Nicole will play July 16.
“(Bluesdays fans) are in for a treat,” Danielle Nicole told Tahoe Onstage. “Vanessa is a multi-instrumentalist and everything about her is absolutely beautiful: Her personality, the way she connects to the audience, her tone, her attack. It’s hard not to get captivated by her playing and her intimacy. She’s such a young talent who has a bright future ahead.”
Despite it being Collier’s first time in the area and windy conditions, there was a season-high attendance for Bluesdays on June 25. Only the second saxophonist to headline the 11-year Bluesdays series, Collier rocked The Village. She gave spectators an up-close look when she played her sax while walking through the crowd.
The touring band includes Laura Chavez, the longtime guitarist with Candye Kane, who played twice at Bluesdays. Other players are Nick Stevens on drums, CC Ellis on bass and Matt Daspit on keys.
Collier elaborated on her approach to live shows.
“Even though everyone has a different job and comes from a different place, there’s a commonality amongst us,” she said. “I like to draw attention to that and to bring people together. Some of my heroes have always done that. That’s always a high priority. Just make it fun, engaging and meaningful.”
Collier’s June 18-July 5 West Coast tour includes a July 4th performance at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon.
— Tim Parsons
- Vanessa Collier’s West Coast tour
June 21 – The Rhythm Room, Pheonix
June 22 – Big Mama’s Ribshack, Pasadena, California
June 23 – Malainey’s, Long Beach
June 24 – Maui Sugar Mill Saloon, Tarzana
June 25 – Bluesdays, Squaw Valley
June 26 – The Momo, Sacramento
June 28 – Boom Boom Room, San Francisco
June 29 – Arena Theater, Point Arena
June 30 – Moe’s Alley, Santa Cruz
July 2 – Volcanic Theatre, Bend, Oregon
July 3 – The Triple Door, Seattle
July 4 – Waterfront Blues Festival, Portland
July 5 – Jazzbones, Tacoma, Washington
6 -8:30 p.m. Tuesdays
The Village at Squaw Valley
June 18 — Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings
June 25 — Vanessa Collier
July 2 — Mark Hummel’s Golden State Lone Star Revue featuring Rusty Zinn
July 9 — Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
July 16 — Danielle Nicole
July 23 — Coco Montoya
July 30 — Chris Cain
Aug. 6 — Sugar Ray Rayford
Aug. 13 — Jimmy Thackery & The Drivers
Aug. 20 — Dennis Jones Band
Aug. 27 — Honey Island Swamp Band
Sept. 3 — Popa Chubby