Smoky Red

Jim Quinby and Marcella Ruikis thought their chance meeting one night at Alex's in Ashland was a wonderful coincidence. As musicians, they immediately recognized that there was something waiting to happen between the two of them.

"I stopped in to hear Dal Carver and his band play at Alex's," Quinby says. "And there was this redhead singing with them. I had never seen her before, and she just blew me away. I sat down right in front of her."

Quinby has lived in the Rogue Valley since 1972, and most folks will know him as the pianist who plays every Sunday at Alex's in Ashland. His work as a professional musician began in Boston's Beacon Hill coffeehouses. When Quinby came to the Rogue Valley, he took a long hiatus from the keys and played rhythm guitar with a local quartet called Country Rain.

"The quartet played music that is much simpler than jazz," Quinby says. "It brought me right down to the ground. When I began playing keys again, I brought that experience with me."

Another of Quinby's projects was PJQ, an eclectic band that played original material around the region for about three years.

Ruikis came to Ashland in '97 and began sitting in as a vocalist with the Rogue Suspects and local jazz bands headed up by Carver and Kent Heyward. Born in Pasadena, Calif., Ruikis was based in San Francisco before coming to Oregon.

"I sang with a few bands around the bay area," Ruikis says. "I worked with The Faraway Brothers, a blues quartet with guitarist Eric McFadden and drummer Paulo Baldi."

But most notably, Ruikis came from a musical family background. Her mother played violin and still sings. Her grandfather was a musician, her great-grandfather was a composer and choir director and her great-grandmother played piano and sang.

One of Quinby's regular gigs was with bassist Jeff Addicott at the Wild Goose Cafe, and soon Ruikis was lending her smoky alto voice to the shows. Quinby and Ruikis started rehearsing together the following spring. They put together song lists and watched them grow.

"As a duo, we started with jazz, songs by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, jazz singers that have influenced me in one way or another," Ruikis says. "And more recent influences such as Over the Rhine, an alternative folk group."

"I'd been paying a lot of attention to New Orleans-style piano," Quinby says. "Like Dr. John, Professor Longhair and Jon Cleary ... piano players that are more known by other piano players."

When Quinby and Ruikis decided to form Smoky Red, they looked at the work they'd done together to see what would translate into a band, and added new material as well.

"We pulled in a few songs that we harmonize well on," Quinby says. "We do 'Killing the Blues,' Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Grammy Award-winning song written by John Prine. We do 'Built for Comfort,' an old Howlin' Wolf tune that we've turned into a very danceable arrangement, also Miles Davis' 'All Blues.' We love to make people dance, so we do Rufus Thomas' funky 'Walkin' the Dog.' We're all over the map. We like it that way."

The two also just finished writing an original tune called "Let's Do It" for the band.

"It's about being in the band, about me crossing paths with Marcella and what has come out of that experience," Quinby says.

"We both have parts of songs scattered through notebooks," Ruikis says. "Some of our lyrics are written on cocktail napkins, and choruses come to me while I'm driving my car. But the collaboration is something that I really enjoy. We want the band to be an extension of the two of us, so that we don't lose that feeling that we have as a duo."

Smoky Red band members include guitarist Steve Elmer, bassist Jeff Addicott and drummer Mike Fitch.

Quinby and Ruikis also perform as a trio with Addicott, presenting music that is a little more relaxed and on the jazzy, bluesy side.

As a five-piece band, Smoky Red made its first appearance at this year's Rogue Valley Blues Festival in Ashland with a 45-minute showcase at the Standing Stone Brewing Company. It turned out to be the perfect launching pad for the band.

"We've never had so much fun," Ruikis says. "It's been an amazing process for me. Jim's been a tremendous help to my growth as a singer. I'm not satisfied playing the same old thing all the time. Learning new material is exciting for me."

"And she's gotten me off my butt," Quinby says. "She's got so many new ideas, so much zeal. I felt like I had settled into my groove as a musician, then this redhead came bouncing into my life.

"What I play now is bluesy and full of rhythm. I like to boogie. I also love to accompany Marcella's ballads. That might be my strongest point."

Smoky Red will perform at 9 p.m. tonight at Alex's, 35 N. Main St., Ashland. Cover for the show at Alex's is $3. Call 482-8818.

The Smoky Red Trio will perform at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 15, at Avalon Bar and Grill, 105 W. Valley View Road, Talent. Cover is $5. Call 512-8864.

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