Featured Musician - July 2008

Name : Ken Ollis

Ken Ollis

Instrument: drum set/percussion

Early Years/Education: Growing up, my family was singing all the time. When I was nine or ten I started playing on pots and pans. My Dad was in musicals for fun. He still does theater and sound design for the theater. My first really touching musical experience happened when I was five or six, when my parents were singing a song together on stage. My Dad was supposed to be going off to war and my Mom played his wife. There I was in the first row crying; it was a turning point in my life. My parents didn't really listen to jazz, but they listened to a lot of other stuff ... like The Oakridge Boys, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, also Bach and Beethoven as well as Broadway musicals and Gilbert and Sullivan. Growing up exposed to all of this was great for me. Even now I'm not a guy that gets stylistically burdened, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that it was never an issue for my parents. 

My first drum teacher was Jeff Cumston, an ideal first teacher. He got me excited about all kinds of music. I did percussion in concert band, which helped my reading. Did the solo competitions, etc., and did pretty well and had fun doing it. In the seventh grade I started taking lessons with Tim Rapp, who was another Cumston student. I studied with him until I was sixteen, then I started with Alan Jones. I'm very fortunate to have had the three best teachers in the area. Cumston was the task master, threatening to “fire” me if I didn't start practicing. Rapp was the most mellow of the three. We worked a lot on reading and he introduced me to lots of players; he made tapes for me. He and Jones stressed transcribing, so I did transcriptions of  Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, everybody. They both encouraged me to go to the jams. I started going to Ron Steen's jams while I was in high school. I graduated from Aloha High, attended Mt. Hood Community College and then PSU. In 2000 I got into the International Banff Jazz Festival workshop in Canada. Kenny Werner was the musical director; it was a great learning experience for me. I received my MA in “Jazz Performance” in 2003 from PSU and started teaching right away. Currently, I'm an adjunct professor of drum set at PSU and at George Fox University I help out with the jazz band by working with their rhythm section. Starting next year I'll be doing the percussion ensemble there, too.

Bands: I've recorded with Lars Campbell (trombone), Tim Jensen (woodwinds), Dave Fleschner (keyboards) and Willie Blair (bass). We're called “The Associates” or “Ollis and Associates.” I think you make music best with people you like to hang out with. There's a lot of give and take and a lot of forgiveness. You can get to more places musically with people you like than with people you're struggling with. I'm also in the “Portland Jazz Orchestra.” This was the brainchild of Lars Campbell and Charley Gray from PSU. Basically Lars just wanted to have a band with all the guys he likes playing with where the guys get paid and play whatever music they want. He's turned it into a non-profit, so anyone who wants to donate can write it off. We play Mingus Big Band, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis tunes, Charley Gray arrangements, etc. For Cathedral Park Jazz Festival we'll play selections from the entire repertoire we've done so far. It's fun and can get pretty visceral. I'm also in the Willie Matheis Band, Pepe and the Bottle Blonds, Paxselin, Dominique Eade (a vocalist from Boston)'s band, and I do casuals with a group called A New Groove.

Musical Influences: Paul Motion, Bob Dylan, The Pogues, Sonic Youth, Bill Frisell, Danny Carey, Elvin Jones, Jack de Johnette, Tony Williams, Shostakovich, Jim Keltner, Ben Folds, Han Bennink, Bjork, Clyde Stubblefield, Primus, Billy Mintz, Tom Waits, Lutoslawski, Joey Baron, etc.

Most Satisfying Experience: Anytime you can find yourself in a situation where the music can really go wherever it needs to go; where everyone is not judging each other and experiences that feeling of acceptance and journey as a team. That doesn't happen every night.

Favorite Recordings: Sonny Rollins, “East Broadway Rundown”; Bill Frisell, Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron, “Live”; Tool, “Lateralus”; Dave Douglas, “Tiny Bell Trio Live in Europe”; Keith Jarrett, “Survivor's Suite”; Sonic Youth, “Dirty”; Tony Malaby, “Adobe”; Paul Motion Trio, “At the Village Vanguard”; Tom Waits, “Mule Variations”; Miles Davis, “Nefertiti.”

Discography: I have my first CD coming out later this year. We don't have a title yet, it's all original material and features Lars Campbell (trombone), Tim Jensen (woodwinds), Dave Fleschner (keyboards) and Willie Blair (bass). I'm also w/Paxselin on “Hollow Earth”; w/Pepe and the Bottle Blonds, “Pambrosia”; “Miriam’s Well” (self-titled); w/Jane Wright, “Southern Songs and Ballads”; w/Dave Fleschner, “At Home,” “Live at Mc Peet's” and “Just Like You”; w/The Michael Vlatkovich Tritet, “Queen Dynamo”; and w/The Tom Mc Nalley Trio (self-titled).

Gigs: July 11 Wilf's w/Ben Fowler and Marcus Reynolds; July 20 Cathedral Park Festival w/The Portland Jazz Orchestra; July 27 The Someday Lounge w/Paxselin Quartet; July 31 Esther Short Park in Vancouver, WA, 6 to 8 pm;  August 15 The Cave w/Willie Matheis; August 27 The Oregon Courtyard Square w/Pepe and the Bottles Blonds, noon to 1 pm.

Future Plans: I want to get my new CD out. And there's another recording I want to do with Jed Wilson (piano) and Bill Athens (bass) when Dominique Eade comes here to perform from Boston. That'll be in November, we'll be playing Portland with her. I would also like to do a trio CD with Jed and Bill sometime in the future.

Other: I think my playing is more personal than it was, say, five years ago. I think there is something different here: Portland players have a more earthy-organic sound. The way the melodies move, it's darker and cloudier...the colors are kind of smeared together.

Interviewer's note: Portland is exploding with talented young players and Ken Ollis is one of the most sought-after time-keepers. From funk to free, Ollis can pilot you there.

-- by Rita Rega


Copyright 2008, Jazz Society of Oregon