Back to Frank with Paul Holmes in lesson photo

Young jazz guitarist often has a song in his head

Staff writer

Paul Holmes never knows when it'll strike, but when it does, his mind goes blank, even during classes at McDowell High School. He'll tune out everybody - chatty friends, lecturing teachers, droning announcements - when a cool tune, the perfect melody or a great guitar riff lightning-bolts his mind.

"Everything will just go completely numb," said Holmes. "I won't be able to listen to what the teacher's saying or what the kids around me are doing. I'll just think, 'I've got a hook line in my head, and as soon as I get home, I've got to do this.' I'll sing it in my head the rest of the day (to remember it). That's how I know I've got a good one, if it catches me."

Holmes has caught his share so far, composing songs with a surprising diversity for a 17-year-old, high school senior. He has released two CDs with Modus, a Millcreek pop band with a moody, alternative Brit-pop feel and Christian sensibility. He's finishing up a third disc, a side project with his cousin Rachel Mason, that's in a whole different musical realm. Cozane Cozine plays trip-hop, a synth-driven, dance-and-groove music that's popular in English clubs.

Meanwhile, Holmes studies jazz guitar with Frank Singer and occasionally fills in with the Raven Band, which features his mom, singer Paula Grack Holmes.

On March 30 at 7 p.m. at the Plymouth Tavern, JazzErie will award Holmes its $500 Floyd Williams Memorial Scholarship, named after the late Allegheny College music educator. Holmes will also play a short jazz guitar set of originals.

Next fall, Holmes will attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston, the country's most renowned music school, which has produced countless professional musicians in all genres.

Look out, Berklee, says Singer. This kid's got it.

"Not every 17-year-old has (this) kind of discipline," said Singer, who's taught Holmes for nearly eight years. "You don't always see that kind of drive."

That drive started at an early age in England. Holmes lived [there] until age 9 and still speaks with a slight British accent. His father, Phillip Holmes, played with Larry Norman, a Christian-rock star in the 1970s, while his mom sang in assorted bands. The family settled near Manchester, where Holmes demonstrated an early love of music.

"I've got pictures of him plunking away at our piano when he was 2˝," said Paula Holmes, who still sings professionally, while her husband dabbles in produc­tion. "He'd go and watch a TV show or a video or a commercial and would run over and try to make chords. I realized this is what he was doing - two fingers on one hand, and one on another. If he hit a dischord, he'd fix it.... I remember thinking, 'This kid has got the ear thing.'"

Singer agrees. "He's got a great ear; that's his strongest thing," said his teacher. "And he's very dedicated to it."

As much as Holmes enjoys playing guitar, he believes his real calling at Berklee and beyond will involve writing tunes.

"That's really where I see myself headed," he said. "I've already been doing a lot of songwriting, since I started playing. Playing an instrument is my key to being able to write songs. I'll be sitting in school, and I'll be writing the best song I think I've done yet. I'm really good at hearing things in my head and knowing where I am on the instrument, in my head, and knowing what notes I'm singing. But I'm not too good if you put the music in front of me. It takes a long time for me to analyze it and play bits and pieces before I get it. I guess I've got more of the vision than the technical skills."

His vision remains focused on England, where he says his musical roots are. Holmes, a dual U.S./British citizen, contends the most exciting music originates overseas.

"It's so much further ahead. The things that are surfacing now over here have already come and gone over there. Same thing with fashion. Music and fashion in Europe is in a completely different realm than we have over here. I still have a lot of friends, and they send me things that are popular."

Holmes listens to artists like Roni Size, Goldie, and Tricky, who haven't made much impact here. "I don't really listen to rock or any guitar music anymore," he said. "It's mostly drum 'n bass and trip-hop. I like the groove, and the jazz influences (in drum-and-bass). I find it the most innovative music right now."

That's why he's plunging into Cozane Cozine, a band without guitars, in his home studio. He writes the tunes - a blend of R&B, pop and trip-hop, he says - and plays them on synthesizers, while his cousin sings. "It's mostly program­ming and mixing," he says. "It's strange. There's no guitar on it. Very little."

The Cozane Cozine CD will be out this summer, he hopes. After that, college beckons in distant Boston.

I was thinking of going to college locally to do something other than music, and then do music on the side," said Holmes. "But then I realized I don't like anything else."

And his mother realized there's no point in stopping him.

"I wanted him to go to Gannon and major in business and not be like all my friends who are talented and don't have jobs," she said. "But Frank (Singer) looked at me askance when I mentioned Gannon. He said, 'As his music teacher, I have one word for Paul: Berklee.' And then I found him salivating over the Web site….If he really has the passion, this is his best shot."

"It's unusual for someone to be where he's at, at this stage," said Singer. "But a lot of that is due to his hard work. I think he's going to be a very serious musician for a very long time."

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This article appeared in the Erie Times News.