On Stage: Chadds Ford’s Collier appears poised for blues stardom

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Vanessa Collier

Kennett Square is no stranger to the blues. It’s actually just the opposite.

Kennett Flash (102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, 484-732-8295, http://www.kennettflash.org) presents top-flight blues acts on a regular basis.

Most of the time, they are established acts who have been recording and performing for years – proven stars of the genre.

On September 15, Kennett Flash is hosting a show featuring a star of the future in the blues world – Vanessa Collier.

Still in her mid-20s, Collier has toured all over the world numerous times and has released three solo albums. With searing saxophone solos, soulful vocals, and witty lyrics, her songwriting features a blend of blues, funk, rock, and soul.

Collier’s impressive vocals and stinging saxophone work saw her light up stages as part of Joe Louis Walker’s band in 2012 and 2013.

In 2014, her debut album “Heart Soul & Saxophone” won her accolades as a “Best of 2014 Blues Breaker.” In March 2017, she released her sophomore album “Meeting My Shadow.” Collier’s latest album “Honey Up” was released on July 6, 2018.

“I’ve been touring a lot since ‘Honey Up’ came out,” said Collier, during a recent phone interview from her home in Delaware County. “It’s been almost non-stop. I did 115 shows in 2018 and I’ve already done more than 200 in 2019.

“I pretty much always take the band – except when I go to Brazil to play. Fred Sunwalk, who is from the Sao Paulo area, emailed me a few years ago and asked me to come to Brazil. For the last three years, I’ve gone there at least once a year.”

Sunwalk, a guitarist, singer and composer, is among the top names in contemporary Brazilian blues. With 22-year career, five CDs and a DVD, he performs at the main blues and jazz festivals in Brazil and makes frequent tours in the United States and Europe accompanying international artists.

“When I tour in Brazil, I use Fred’s band,” said Collier. “They know the music well.

“I haven’t been in the studio for a while. Making an album every two years seems to be a good number for me. I’m writing songs now for my next album. There will be vocal tracks and instrumental tracks. I always do a mix.
“Playing sax, songwriting, singing – I think of them as equals,” said Collier. “I really enjoy the songwriting process. I’ve always been a sax player. I keep the balance when I’m writing.”

Collier is primarily a sax player, singer and songwriter but is also well-versed in playing clavinet, flute, electric organ, and percussion.

“When I was little, I really wanted to play piano,” said Collier. “I don’t know why. I started taking piano lessons but didn’t like the teacher, so I quit after six months. I saw someone playing sax on television and fell in love with it. We rented a sax for me when I was in fourth grade. That was in school. Then, I studied with a private instructor for a few years.

“Then, I took lessons with Chris Vadala, who played sax with Chuck Mangione. I studied with him for seven years – classical, jazz and funk. He started me doubling on flute and clarinet. I still play those instruments. Mainly, I play sax — tenor, some soprano and some baritone.”

Collier’s latest album “Honey Up” was released just over a year ago.

According to Collier on her website, “This album is a snapshot in time of what I enjoy writing/playing/singing and brings together my diverse inspirations and ideas and, on this album especially, more of my personality.

“Of course, there’s always a purpose to some of my songs as they are based on things I struggle with, like why we can’t listen and respect each other, why we can’t work to find common ground, and why we can’t find our way out of the small boxes we place (or accept) in our lives, but even those songs drive us forward and the music is upbeat and funky.

“Similar to my previous records (which I also produced), the songs on ‘Honey Up’ pay respect to the traditions and roots of blues music, but branch out with my own blend of rock, funk, gospel, NOLA, and soul grooves and, of course, my love of the saxophone. Each song is different, and I hope you find a favorite (or two or three…)!! Thank you for listening!”

“The ‘Honey Up’ album was nominated for Blues Music Award (BMA) Contemporary Blues Album of the year,” said Collier.  “The album came out last July and did well right from the start. It was a Top 5 Billboard Blues Album and was well-received by radio deejays.”

Collier was nominated in 2017 for a Blues Music Award in the “Instrumental — Horn Player of the Year” category. She also won first place in the “Lyrics Only” category of the 2017 USA Songwriting Competition. In 2018, Collier was nominated in two categories at the Blues Music Awards – “Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year” and “Instrumental — Horn Player of the Year.”

In 2019, she was again nominated in same two categories at the Blues Music Awards – “Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year” and “Instrumental – Horn.” She claimed first place in the “Instrumental – Horn” category.

“Honey Up,” which had a three-month residency on Billboard’s “Top Blues Albums Chart,” provides a good look at Collier’s influences.

“With jazz, the first person I was turned on to was Cannonball Adderley,” said Collier. “Other major influences were John Coltrane, Junior Walker, and Maceo Parker. Vocally, I started with Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and that morphed into Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt.”

Collier also is a music teacher and has been involved in various “Blues in Schools” programs.

“I grew up in Clarksville, Maryland and then graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston,” said Collier, who earned a dual degree in performance and music production, and engineering. “Right now, I’m basically just playing and teaching.

“When I’m playing live, it’s mostly sax and vocals. I do play guitar on two songs. I use three saxes – soprano, tenor and alto – with the majority on soprano. In my current show, I’ve been trying to work songs from ‘Honey Up.” Generally, I play a blend from all three records.”

While Collier has played shows all over the world – especially Europe and South America – this weekend’s show will be in her own backyard – almost.

“My home is in Chadds Ford so I’m very excited to be playing at the Flash,” said Collier. “I’m living here with my family. My parents both teach at the University of Delaware and I have three younger sisters ages 12, 10 and 7.”

Video link for Vanessa Collier – https://youtu.be/Ji0x9vkQVcQ.

The show at Kennett Flash will start at 7 p.m. Tickets are $24.

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