Vanessa Collier knows how to produce, onstage and off

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
Regardless of the pandemic, Vanessa Collier is in constant motion.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage photo

Vanessa Collier can’t cash in on her new album by playing live shows these days, but she’s no starving artist. She regularly feasts on fresh tomatillos, peppers, zucchini, potatoes, brown cherry tomatoes and beets.

Productivity is a trait of the singer-saxophonist songwriter, who teaches saxophone, has taken in a rescue dog – her second — and now has time to seriously delve into piano lessons. She’s into produce, too.

“I always wanted to garden, but of course when you are always on the road you can’t manage a garden. You have to tend to it every day,” she said. “My mom found a local organic farm that’s run by women. I asked them, ‘In the off chance that you might need another volunteer, another hand, I would love to do some work.’”

One of the job benefits is bringing home fresh veggies. And while It might be news to some that tomatillos grow in Delaware, no one who has heard Collier’s records or seen her perform is surprised that she made a superb, soulful fourth studio album, “Heart On The Line.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic canceled live music, Collier’s CD was to be released in May, just before scheduled appearances at the Chesaspeake Bay Blues Festival and at her hometown Columbia, Maryland, venue The Soundry, which went out of business in July.

The release of “Heart On The Line” was moved to Aug. 21, still in time to receive Grammy Award consideration, leading to the conundrum, which category? It could be R&B, Jazz or Blues, that latter being where she’s been embraced by fans ever since finishing school and hitting the road with Blues Hall of Fame member Joe Louis Walker. A female saxophone player in a genre dominated by guitar-wielding men is an ambitious endeavor, but it seems there’s nothing Collier can’t accomplish.

“I might be the wild card. I might be the underdog. … I might be small in stature and I might be quiet. You might not even know of me. But don’t get me wrong, honey. I know what I’m here for. So don’t get in my way. Let me be me. … You might be surprised.” – From the song “Take A Chance on Me.

The band during the final day of sessions in Camden, Maine: Mark Wessel (Recording Engineer), Laura Chavez (Electric Guitar), Ben Fox (Assistant Engineer), Vanessa Collier, William Gorman (Piano/Organ/Keys), C.C. Ellis (Bass), Nick Stevens (Drums).
Team player to solo career

A four-year varsity basketball player at River Hill High School, Collier considered college hoops before nixing the folly of participating in a sport where politics often control rosters. Instead, she attended prestigious Berklee College of Music, where she earned dual degrees: Performance and Music Production & Engineering. The real-life internship touring with Joe Louis Walker actually began before she wrapped up her schoolwork. After a year and one-half, Walker told her she was ready to go solo.

Collier, 29, appreciates and goes out of her way to credit her mentors, first and foremost being her mother, Beth Collier-Vermeer, a professor at University of Delaware.

“She’s been my biggest mentor in my life in just being a human on this earth but there have been so many people as I look back,” Collier said. “Thankfully, I learned the lessons at the right time when I was ready to hear them, accept them and use them. I feel really blessed to have all these people around me.

There’s instructor Chris Vadala, who played saxophone for 20 years with Chuck Mangione. Lesson 1: Listen to 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.”

In May, Collier received her second-straight Blues Music Award for Best Horn.

Piano was the first instrument Collier studied, but an impatient, knuckle-rapping teacher spoiled the experience. She came back to the instrument under the guidance of Bob Boguslaw, and she was concluding a lesson when she took the phone call for this interview.

“I love piano because you can play the melody and play the chords and be an entire orchestra by yourself,” she said. “(Boguslaw) was with the Marine band for 25-plus years. He’s taught me so, so much.”

Tahoe Onstage
Vanessa Collier and guitarist Laura Chavez rock Squaw Valley in 2019.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage photo
A Bluesdays blast at Tahoe

As skilled as she is as a musician, Collier might be more impressive as a performer. She blew away a crowd last summer during her Lake Tahoe debut at a weekly event, Bluesdays, at Squaw Valley ski resort. Due to the pandemic, an encore concert in 2020 was canceled — along with the entire series.

“We started in Pennsylvania and drove across Colorado. (Bluesdays) was a highlight for me. The area is beautiful, the setup is great and the sound is awesome. I was really looking forward to it. I hope it returns when things return. Whenever that is, I’m ready to go.”

Collier credits Berklee’s Livingston Taylor for developing her stage presence.

“It’s always been a part of me to perform (but) from a very young age in the house I was always very shy,” Collier said. “Then I took this class and it just changed the way that I perform and I continue to use his points.

“I want to make a connection with people, and I want them to make a connection to me and the music whether it’s 50 people in the audience or 5,000. I want every person to feel very close to the music.”

Mark Wessel, who engineered her third album, “Honey Up,” and the new one, recorded at his Camden, Maine, studio. Wessel was Collier’s engineering professor for a semester at Berklee and has since hired her to play sax for numerous sessions.

“I knew if we could get Mark Wessel we could make the record I heard in my head,” she said.

“Heart on the Line” was released Aug. 21, 2020.
Horns, resonator guitar and cowbell

Collier plays all her horns – alto, tenor, soprano, baritone sax– and resonator guitar and even cowbell on the record, which celebrates myriad styles: R&B, soul, torch jazz and country blues.

Bandmember Laura Chavez plays electric guitar.

“She’s one of the most under rated guitar players out there,” Collier said. “She’s fantastic as a soloist but if you really listen to her throughout a show, she’s just playing exactly what the music needs. There is space when it’s needed, there‘s little fills when it’s needed. Her groove and her lock with the rest of the band is just fantastic.”

Collier wrote eight songs, including title track “Heart On The Line,” and three covers. She opens with James Brown’s “Super Bad.” Like one of her shows, she gets the listener rocking in an instant.

Every tune on the record is solidly groovy, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. But mine might be “Who’s in Power,” which opens with Nick Stevens’ dynamic drum hook. Collier delivers a timely message in funky Aretha Franklin style.

“We’ve been home since March 13 but the good part is that we were able to more time in record,” Collier said. “I wrote all the horn parts and made sure all the background vocals were here I wanted them to be.”

“It’s out there for the world to hear and I’m happy about it. I didn’t want it to sit for another year. I might get another record written and recorded in the meantime. But I wanted to release this one as a statement of who I am at this age and where I am as an artist.”

That next record, said, could be as a duo with Chavez. Vanessa Collier knows how to produce, onstage and off.

— Tim Parsons

Heart On The Line’
Vanessa Collier:
Vocals, Background Vocals, Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, Resonator Guitar (3), Cowbell
Nick Stevens: Drums, Percussion, Shuitar
C.C. Ellis (2,3,4,6,7,9,10); Scot Sutherland (1,5,8); Cornell Williams (11): Bass
Laura Chavez: Electric Guitar
William Gorman: Organ, Piano, Wurlitzer, Clavinet
Quinn Carson: Trombone (all except 3 & 4)
Doug Woolverton: Trumpet (all except 3 & 4)

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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