Album Review of Sheila Landis and Rick Matle: Walkin’ After Midnight, feat. George “Sax” Benson (SheLan Records)
Sheila Landis is a Detroit-based multi-award-winning jazz vocalist and composer whose career spans 45 years. Rick Matle is a guitarist’s guitarist and composer, with a musical resume nearly as long, having played in big bands and combos throughout the metro Detroit area. Together, since 1991, they’ve released a number of unique albums exploring all aspects of jazz, blues, world music, funk, and everything in between.
“Walkin’ After Midnight” is not only the title track of the album but was a signature hit for country crooner Patsy Cline. Landis, an ardent maven of Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and all the greats, puts her gossamer spin on a classic singer and song. Detroit woodwind virtuoso George “Sax” Benson offers up some nice tenor work, with Matle ushering in cool bop lines. This is a well balanced mix of pop and swing courtesy of frequent collaborator Karen Tomalis on drums.
Louis Jordan’s “Knock Me a Kiss” is textbook vocalizing for Landis. She injects the suave and sexy tune, with just the right amount of playful humor and wordless scatting. Benson answers her phrasing by responding with smooth tenor shadings. “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” is a Duke Ellington classic. It gets a funky treatment here as if James Brown or Curtis Mayfield were arranging. Matle’s Wes Montgomery-like guitar, along with Benson’s muscular sax, make this sizzle.
“Something Wonderful” is a Landis/Matle co-write, and it recalls an old-school R&B flavored tune. Growing up in the ‘60s and ’70s, they were both heavily influenced by the contemporary sounds of the day. This is their loving tribute where Landis sings, “The music of those Motown artists really touched my soul.”
Acclaimed poet Maya Angelou’s work was the basis for “Phenomenal Woman (Inner Mystery).” Afro-Cuban rhythms fueled by drummer Gayelynn McKinney make the vamp-like groove sparkle. The harmonized trumpets of David Thomas recall Hugh Masakela or vintage Herb Alpert.
From there they bring it down a tad for a tune popularized by Peggy Lee, and written by Little Willie John, called “Fever.” Recorded in 2017 at the Arts, Beats & Eats festival, this is the kind of stuff Landis can really sink her teeth into. It’s appropriately cool, bluesy and mellow, with outstanding chordal guitar solos by Matle. At that same festival, a medley of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and a poem set to music called “Bold as Love” take the sound and spirit of the guitar legend to amazing and noteworthy heights. The rhythm section of bassist Kurt Krahnke and drummer Tomalis interact with Matle and Landis for a true and authentic re-creation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience band. While they are somewhat faithful to “Little Wing’s” original intent, Landis takes liberties with it in a suitably psychedelic manner. The original Landis poem “Bold as Love” is not only a fitting tribute to Hendrix, but it is a showcase for all her formidable and incomparable vocal and lyrical skills. She beatboxes, scats, utilizes word play, and straddles the stratosphere with her incredible range. Meanwhile, led by Matle, the rhythm section takes a journey through a collage of sound referencing Hendrix’s catalog of hits. About Jimi’s legacy Landis recites: “He has the psychedelic showmanship of Louis Jordan in the Age of Aquarius.”
They return on that same concert to some mainstream jazz for an oldie but goodie “It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing.” The Duke Ellington number never sounded so lively and fun! And it really does swing where Landis mimics a muted trumpet, among her many vocal iterations.
They conclude the album with a novel and unusual track, recorded live in 2017 at the Detroit Jazz Festival, called “Kazoo Who?” It’s kind of a jamming sort of situation where the moral of the story is that everything goes better with a kazoo. Drummer David Taylor and bassist John Lindberg lay down a jazzy hip-hop-type groove as Landis raps about her love of the kazoo, leading to an impassioned solo on said instrument. You just gotta hear it to believe it! It’s cool and one kids young and old can really dig into.
Sheila Landis and Rick Matle are a great team in the same family as Tuck and Patti and artists of that ilk. The combination of Landis’ sturdy modern bop roots, with Matle’s sense of guitar experimentation and rock sensibilities single-handedly take jazz in new and exciting directions.
Sheila and Rick have several upcoming shows this month around metro Detroit. This weekend, they’ll be at the Village of Rochester Hills Gazebo on Friday, July 9th and at Johnny’s Speakeasy on Royal Oak on Sunday, July 11th. For additional details on these and other live dates, be sure to check out the “Shows” page on their website.