By Dale Baumgartner
If you’re persistent about going to local shows, every so often you stumble upon a gem you end up holding close to your soul. Sometimes that gem takes the shape of a woman with a pixie cut and killer vocals.
The month of April brought Jazz Month at Cityscape, with performances Tuesday through Friday from roughly 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., in the middle of downtown Phoenix. It was a nice touch to what is usually an extremely quiet, boring lunch hour overrun with well-dressed working professionals consuming Chipotle. Most of the acts were nothing too special — a few singer-songwriters, a high school jazz band, et cetera.
However, as I was biking by one day, I heard some intense vocals that made me drop everything to learn more. Inside the venue, I discovered Holly Pyle, an extremely versatile jazz vocalist with a dynamic list of musical involvement in Phoenix.
Holly is proof you need next to nothing to produce complex sounds without a band. She used only a microphone and loop station attached to a tablet.
The music was obscure. There was no real percussion, so it was hard to get a gauge of the rhythm. The sound was extremely ambient. She performed some great covers, including an incredible rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” but some of the songs were so beautifully contorted that they felt original.
She incorporated scatty, almost beat-boxed background layers with soaring, reverb-filled vocals comparable to a violin mixed with a bassoon. Her music was almost binaural, making it very easy to lose yourself. It set an intensely beautiful background, filling listeners to the brim with positive, ambient energy.
Google “Holly Pyle” and check out her Facebook; she has amazing songs in tons of genres such as swing, modern jazz, and hip-hop. She is a well-seasoned vocalist with many hats.
As it turned out, she was playing the lunch show two days later with her band, House of Stairs. I cleared my calendar and committed to see them.
House of Stairs is a minimalist trio with Pyle on vocals, Garrison Jones on keyboard/synth, and Stephen Avalos on drums. In a time when big bands with many instruments are becoming the norm once more, the group produces a massive array of sounds with as little equipment as possible. It is reminiscent of the LA-based trio Moonchild, but there’s no real evidence of influence there. They hold much more restraint and focus on bringing a fresh take to modern jazz without going too far, sticking to a more classic formula — not something we see often these days.
The rhythm section is the backbone of the trio. With Stephen Avalos as the sole component, there are infinite opportunities for him to get carried away. He has obvious skill and could easily take the crowd’s focus for himself. However, he does an impeccable job of maintaining composure and manages to find the perfect moments to bring intensity without overshadowing what else is going on.
He is comparable to the classic jazz drummers pre-1960. Rocking a tiny kit with just a bass drum, snare, and a few cymbals, you don’t expect much at first. Once the set begins, however, it is obvious that he has become an expert using what he views as the bare necessities for his drum kit. It’s a style that more modern drummers should consider.
Garrison Jones keeps it real with a keyboard mostly set on a vibraphone-esque setting and a tiny, old-school Korg synth. A master of texture, he brings the ambiance into the House of Stairs sound. He flawlessly rides the line of traditional jazz and lo-fi music.
Quite a few other instruments make appearances on their recorded material, most notably an impeccably dropped accordion and sax.
With an EP and an LP on Bandcamp and covers on YouTube, there’s plenty of listening material from House of Stairs. It’s music for an event, a long drive, or studying. If you’re looking for texture and quality, local material, House of Stairs has it.