On its seventh recording, Florida Rays, the University of Central Florida's always dependable Flying Horse Big Band abandons its usual modus operandistraight-from-the-hip contemporary jazzto survey music associated with R&B legend (and Florida native) Ray Charles. As Charles, an accomplished musician, was best known as a vocalist, one might anticipate (correctly) that a handful of Charles' progeny would be stopping by to unmask their vocal talents. There are four singers in all: Rob Paparozzi , Vance Villastrigo, DaVonda Simmons and, last but not least, Khristian Dentley. Their presence leaves room for only a pair of instrumentalsthe strong yet flavorful opener, "One Mint Julep," and Herbie Hancock's emphatic "Watermelon Man," both ably scored by the band's director, Jeff Rupert.
Indeed, it is the impressive charts by Rupert, Harry Allen, Per Danielsson, Michael Philip Mossman, Mark Taylor and Richard Drexler that redeem for the most part what could have been a perfunctory and tedious recitation of Charles' greatest hits. The band bends its collective shoulder to the wheel, helping transform the customary R&B licks and rhythms into something more closely akin to big-band jazz. As for the vocalists, even though none of them is named Ray Charles they are exemplary stand-ins, each one mirroring in his or her own way the incomparable sagacity and charisma of the master. Paparozzi, who doubles on harmonica, is center stage on half a dozen numbers including four in a row ("Let the Good Times Roll," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "I'm Movin' On," "It Should've Been Me"), Villastrigo on four ("It Should've Been Me," "What'd I Say," "You Don't Know Me," "Unchain My Heart").
Simmons makes the most of her three appearanceson "Lonely Avenue," "What'd I Say" and (with Paparozzi) "Hit the Road, Jack"as does Dentley on Joe Raposo's plaintive anthem for Kermit the Frog, "(It's Not Easy) Bein' Green." Tenor saxophonist Ryan Devlin fashions a superb solo there, a manifesto he amplifies on "One Mint Julep," "Hallelujah," "Watermelon Man" and "Hit the Road." Other admirable soloists include guitarist Daniel Howard, tenor Dylan Hannan ("I'm Movin On") and trombonists Jeremiah St. John and Christian Herrera, who trade sturdy salvos on "Let the Good Times Roll." This is an enterprising albeit anomalous cruise that could easily have run aground but doesn't, thanks largely to Rupert's superior leadership and those wonderful arrangers. Kudos to them and to that admirable band, whose abiding spirit has enabled the Florida Rays to focus their radiant light on the memorable music of Ray Charles.
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’d I Say; You Don’t Know Me; Watermelon Man;
(It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Green; Hit the Road, Jack; Busted; Unchain My Heart.