One evening some years ago I was at dinner in an Italian restaurant in Port Townsend, Washington. The food was lovely, the conversation lively, and recorded jazz was playing in the background. I thought I recognized the saxophonist as Detroit’s Chris Collins, but why was an eatery at the western edge of the country playing his music? Moreover, the menu for that night featured a timballo, a dish that figures prominently in the movie Big Night, which included Collins on the soundtrack.
When I asked who was playing, the owner exclaimed, “Why, Chris Collins, of course!” It turns out the restaurant hosted a premiere of the movie at which they served the dish, and they liked it so much, they kept it on the menu. Now, I often think of the timballo and the movie when I hear the sound of the Collins’ tenor saxophone.
Collins occupies a singular place in the jazz scene of Detroit. He is a professor at Wayne State University, where he directs the program in jazz studies, but his passion for teaching the music radiates further: he does clinics all over the world and writes about jazz for various publications. He also maintains a busy performing and composing schedule, and his life became more complicated when in 2011 he was offered the artistic directorship of the Detroit Jazz Festival, the largest free jazz fest in the country. He was the first musician to hold the post, and he quickly rose to the task. The festival has been revived during his tenure, and each year seems better than the last.
Collins is a native Detroiter who studied music early in St. Clair Shores and eventually at Wayne State. Education and teaching have not dulled his woodwind skills, however, and he continues to impress with a masterful technical command of his horns. On the saxophone he favors a rich, ringing sound and a melodic concept that is full of rhythmic and harmonic surprises.
He has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history with a great love of the tenor sax tradition, harkening back to his early discovery of Coleman Hawkins, but he finds special pleasure in exploring his own roots. During a visit to Dublin he reveled in the folk music of his ancestors, and this led to Jazz from the Shamrock Shore, a unique amalgam of Irish music and jazz. Collins did not engage in simple fusion but rather sought to bring out the common structural elements while recognizing the distinctive sounds of each. The recording also demonstrated that he is quite simply one of the best clarinetists in jazz.
But Collins also has great love for the other side of his musical personality: the legacy of Detroit jazz. During his tenure as director of the jazz festival he has engaged more local musicians and brought back many of the luminaries of the Motown jazz diaspora. He has also created a new sextet, the Detroit Jazzfest All-Stars, made up of some of the city’s finest; they will play the Kerrytown Concert House on July 25.