Oracle Blue Brings Swank Pop to Rudy’s
By Derek Volkmann
Inclement weather did not stop the turnout to Rudy’s Jazz Room Saturday night, March 30 to see regional favorites Oracle Blue perform their own brand of neo-soul. Combining original songs with covers of R&B and pop tunes, the band led the audience through soulful grooves peppered with bebop-rooted improvisations and effects-driven timbres.
Hailing from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Oracle Blue was formed in Fall 2013 as a student jazz combo at Coastal Carolina University. The band members include vocalist Liz Kelley, bassist McKinley Devilbiss, drummer Wade McMillan, and multi-instrumentalists Zach Douglas and J.P. Taylor who switched between various keyboards, brass, and woodwind instruments.
The band garnered accolades in 2017 with a Downbeat magazine award which led to invitations to perform at the Montreux, Umbria, and Vienne Jazz Festivals. Since then, Oracle Blue have remained active in the Southeast and Midsouth regions of the United States, bringing what they call “swank pop” to audiences. “We want our music to be all-inclusive,” states Kelley, “It’s a term we came up with to communicate our goal of making music that is relatable to our audiences.” The term describes a sound that utilizes pop songwriting combined with rhythmic grooves and melodic improvisations anchored in jazz traditions from the middle-Twentieth century in pursuit of a goal of creating music engaging to audiences while also challenging conventional norms of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic vocabulary.
Those relatable musical selections range anywhere from pop tunes such as Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” to Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and songs by other artists such as Hiatus Kaiyote and Mary J. Blige. The band’s original compositions reflect a pop sensibility rooted around looping vamps that allow each band member to explore harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic expressions that addresses their jazz roots. Kelley showcased her command of melodic variations on the melodies of each tune while Douglas and Taylor explored postbop improvisational language in various selections. The rhythm section was held down by Devilbiss and McMillan, who each traversed melodic and rhythmic devices addressing various styles within funk, swing, and Latin styles.
In terms of timbre, the band relied heavily on synthesizers for effects on the various wind instruments in addition to vocal melodies sung by Kelley and Taylor. Both Taylor and Douglas showcased affinities for keyboard accompaniment figures characterized by thick block chords that planed through chromatic substitutions which affected unique harmonic colors in the overall sound when combined with the steady bass figures from Devilbiss and the rhythmic explorations from McMillan.
Overall, the group played each selection with an approach that while consistent, also proved to be somewhat unvaried in terms of groove and overall sound. Most of the selections were centered around repeated 16th-note oriented grooves and thick accompaniment pads. The deviations from this approach were a welcomed contrast, reflecting a growing musical maturity in the band while they seek to define and cement their sound. Though somewhat indiscernible from the present fare of current neo-soul/R&B groups, Oracle Blue shows promise of finding a sound that is accessible yet wholly unique as they refine their material in both the studio and on the road.