Piano whiz Holly Bowling soars in national jam-band scene | ETC

TRAVERSE CITY — When Ludington-born Holly Bowling hit the spotlight recently at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival, the prodigious pianist logged yet another milestone in what’s proven to be a highlight-filled summer and an unusual, meteoric rise amid the country’s jam-band scene .

First making an unexpected splash in 2015 when she re-arranged the music of Phish for solo piano (and later doing the same for classic Grateful Dead performances), the classically trained Bowling has since become a go-to collaborator on stage with the likes of Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes, John Scofield, Branford Marsalis and Kalamazoo’s Greensky Bluegrass.

Indeed, guitarist Dave Bruzza said band members fondly refer to Bowling as the “sixth member” of Greensky Bluegrass, joining the boys recently atop Pier 17 in New York City for a two-night stand that not only showed off the keyboardist’s eye-popping, ear-pleasing chops but proving there’s a place for organ and piano even in bluegrass.

The band even leaned on her keyboard prowess in the studio to enhance the title track for the progressive bluegrass powerhouse’s latest album, “Stress Dreams.”

“One thing that’s cool about playing with these guys is there’s no keyboard part to come in and learn,” said Bowling, 38, who was raised in Grand Rapids and Grand Haven, attending Covell Elementary School and Grand Haven High School.

“You have an open canvas to do whatever. It feels like it fits. … With ‘Stress Dreams’ … I feel like they had left these open spaces and they were moving out of the way to make room for me. That was really cool and I was thrilled that they had given me the opportunity to come in and try to add something to the song.”

Bowling did far more than that during the New York run of shows, earning robust applause for solo after solo from diehard Greensky fans who packed the scenic rooftop venue for the psychedelic weekend shows in Manhattan.

It perfectly demonstrated how Bowling has cemented her place as an improvisational, jam-band maestro — as well as co-founder of the band Ghost Light with guitarist Tom Hamilton — something that wasn’t necessarily in the cards when she began playing classical piano at a very young age.

On the other hand, learning to play piano via the Suzuki method may have been the perfect testing ground for the improvisational jamming that was to come, paired with her deep affection for Phish, Grateful Dead and other jam bands.

“You learn music by ear before you ever learn to read and so that background is very much a classical music method that has become kind of my whole world,” Bowling said.

“The stuff that happens on the fly on stage of listening to each other, especially when you’re improvising, and being able to find your footing there. Just having spent my entire childhood and adolescence doing heavy, heavy ear training and having that be really the pathway into music for me, it’s very, very natural. I feel very at home that way.”

She’s so at home that she’s played renowned places such as Carnegie Hall, earned plaudits from Rolling Stone and Billboard, and soared into the Top 25 of Billboard’s top classical albums chart with “Better Left Unsung: The Music of the Grateful Dead Reimagined for Solo Piano .”

Of course, “reimagining” live performances of songs by Phish and Grateful Dead is an arduous, time-consuming task — an endeavor first inspired by an improvised, 37-minute live version of a Phish tune that Bowling considers a masterpiece.

“I started out just playing around with it, just kind of tinkering with bits and pieces of it at my piano,” recalled Bowling, who has attended more than 300 Phish shows.

“At one point, just kind of got the idea like maybe I should string all these pieces together and actually write it. I had no intention of doing anything with it, other than it being a little pet project for me to work late into the night when I was bored, you know.”

A year of labor later, “it just kind of snowballed” into the release, “Distillation of a Dream: The Music of Phish Reimagined for Piano,” a two-LP set that attracted widespread attention from fans and critics.

She’s since worked up songs by Allman Brothers, Nine Inch Nails and The National in similar fashion, but conceded she has “a pretty full plate” these days and hasn’t dived into reimagining other artists’ work, something that requires “a very deep dive into the minutiae of each song.”

On the flip side, Bowling — who was born Holly Earnest and now resides in San Francisco — jumps gleefully into her work with Ghost Light, a jam band launched in 2017 which has played numerous festivals and toured with Greensky Bluegrass. A new album is planned.

“Ghost Light is just insanely fun. It’s very improvisation-heavy and there’s just kind of an ethos of no-rules around the improv, other than don’t repeat yourself and do something new,” she said.

“That just leaves the door swung wide open every single night for different things to happen. So… it doesn’t get boring. It’s always challenging me and pushing me. I’m very grateful to have bandmates that share that goal.”

Another goal? Getting back to Michigan to share her music with fans in her home state.

“I personally have a vested interest in getting back to western Michigan,” she insisted.


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