A music fan would be challenged to find a band as skilled as Houston Jones or a player as educated as its bassist.
The group's name comes from guitarist Glenn Houston and lead singer Travis Jones. The aforementioned upright bassist is Chris Kee, who has an Ivy League degree in ethnomusicology and had a career as a lawyer. He is also a member of Peter Rowan's Free Mexican Air Force and is a longtime collaborator with guitarist Jim Campilongo.
We spoke with Kee about Houston Jones and its upcoming show in the Valhalla Boathouse Theater and, of course, some ethnomusicology.
Q: Working 15 years as an attorney for the city of Oakland, you must have known Gov. Jerry Brown, who used to be the mayor. What was it like to work with him?
Houston: It was an adventure. He exuded this charisma and this electric energy. It was really something to be around. He's a real character, that guy.
Q: How do you describe Houston Jones?
Houston: The catchall term they use is Americana. It is blues-country-bluegrass-jazz, but 95 percent of what we perform is original music. So it really is an amalgamation of all those styles. If you want a pop culture reference to us, we're kind of like the band, the Band. They took American-roots music influences and then molded it into their own sound. That's sort of the closest I can come to describing us.
Q: What did you study at Yale?
Houston: Ethnomusicology is basically a mixture of anthropology and music. My thesis was the transatlantic African connection. I focused on gospel music. I went to a lot of Pentecostal churches around New England.
Q: The members of Houston Jones have an impressive biography. It's very talented, isn't it?
Houston: The skill level is pretty extraordinary.
Q: Can you talk about the lineup?
Houston: Glenn, the lead guitar player, is just extraordinarily gifted. He's a great blues player. He is lately studying jazz and he does all this playing left-handed upside down. It's kind of bewildering watching him play. It's funny watching guitar players come to the front of the stage scratching their heads that he is able to do what he does.
Henry (Salvia, the keyboardist) is a human jukebox. He can play any style, any song. It becomes something of a joke try to stump Henry. He's just an American scholar of popular music in particular. And he's so versatile, he can play anything, literally.
Travis, the lead singer, has a deep background in gospel music as a child with his mom. He grew up singing in the church. The inherent quality of his voice is just exceptional and his ability to reign emotion and nuance out of the lyrics as a songwriter like me is incredibly gratifying.
And Peter Tucker the drummer and I have been playing together in bands for a quarter of as century and we have this sort of intuitive thing. The Chris and Peter thing going on, that can really motor a band because you can anticipate what the other's going to do, when you're going to swell to bring up the intensity of a song, when you're going to drop out we just kind of do instinctively now.
Q: Is jazz our nation's greatest cultural contribution?
Houston: Yes. It is so harmonically complicated but to overlay that with its improvisational role, it's like making up Stravinsky on the fly. It's really an astonishing achievement. It's more sophisticated than traditional Western classical music, but I think more exciting because of the rhythmic drive and the high wire act you get from the improvisers.