The Flying Horse Big Band: Florida Rays

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The Flying Horse Big Band’s energy is contagious. I confess that I was not aware of the existence of the student band from the University of Central Florida’s Jazz Studies Program until Florida Rays, already its seventh release, fell on my lap. It succeeds Good News (2019), which re-imagined Miles, Monk ánd John Lennon in big band fashion, and The Bat Swings (2018), a dynamic take of the Batman series soundtracks. Now that’s what I call a spunky approach.

Guest artists – singers Rob Papalozzi, DaVonda Simmons, Khristian Dentley and pianist Vance Villastrigo – complement students of The Flying Horse Big Band, which is led by musician, composer and professor Jeff Rupert. Florida Rays focuses on the work of Ray Charles, who spent his apprentice years in Florida before he birthed soul on the Atlantic label in the 50s. Charles’ blend of gospel and rhythm and blues exuded plenty of jazz feeling. As a consequence, his music is easily adaptable to a jazz setting. Still, the evocation of Brother Ray’s music by these young lions is particularly clever and uplifting and belies the prevalent idea that the current generation hasn’t got any “soul”.

The depth of the smart arrangements is striking, the band sound is warm and punchy and as a result, the high points are legion. Subtle shifts of rhythm and red-hot, slightly eccentric sax eruptions by Ryan Devlin penetrate the heart of classic Charles performances as One Mint Julep, Let The Good Times Roll, Hallelujah I Just Love Her So and I’m Movin’ On. Singer Rob Papalozzi proves to be a gritty and soulful exponent of the Ray Charles style. While he hurts his back lifting the stop-time climax of What I’d Say, Busted and Unchain My Heart are convincing, bossy endeavours. Moreover, Paparozzi contributes excellent harmonica in the Little Walter tradition. In this context, the band’s version of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man is superfluous, although the development of the interpretation, all suggestive lyricism, is pretty nifty.

While the main part of Florida Rays concentrates on uplifting rhythm and blues, the ballad Bein’ Green is more introspective. Spine-tingling is the word for Khristian Dentley’s flexible voice, its blissful lyricism making you think twice about all those singers that bargain away the inflections of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway into pathetic hiccups.

Buoyant or introverted, The Flying Horse Big Band is a class act.

Discography
One Mint Julep; Let The Good Times Roll; Hallelujah I Love Her So; I’m Movin’ On; It Should’ve Been Me; Lonely Avenue; What I’d Say; You Don’t Know Me; Watermelon Man; (It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Green; Hit The Road, Jack; Busted; Unchain My Heart (59.09)
Jeff Rupert (dir); Rob Paparozzi (v and hca, 2-5, 11 & 12); DaVonda Simmons (v, 6, 7 & 11); Khristian Dentley (v, 10); Vance Villastrigo (p, 10); Marco Rivera, Matt Pieper, Kaylie Genton & Randy Le (t); Ryan Devlin (ts, 1, 3, 9, 10 & 11); Dylan Hannan (ts, 4); Declan Ward & Andy Garcia (as); Justin Dudley (bar); Jeremiah St. John, Christian Herrera, Jacob Henderson & Garrett Gauvin (tb); Collin Oliver & Carl Fleitz (p, org); Daniel Howard (g); Michael Santos (b); Devon Costanza (d). Ocoee, Florida, 6-7 May 2020.
Flying Horse Records 080420