You might not expect chemistry to be important to four Bellarmine University jazz studies students, but it was.
Oh, not that kind of chemistry – covalent bonds, isotopes and Avogadro’s number. We’re talking about the chemistry that comes when musicians understand each other and can easily translate each other’s musical language. From the start, it was this latter kind of chemistry that made the core founding members of local band Kiana & the Sun Kings – Kiana Del (vocals), Phillip Bullock (bass), Harris Boyer (guitar), and Matt McKay (flute) – know they were creating something special.
“We were playing together in various jazz ensembles, but for my senior recital in 2017 I had them play and we just gelled so much,” Del says.
They all wanted to continue playing gigs together outside of school.
“What I noticed with them is that there wasn’t a lot of sidestepping,” Del says. “We knew how to speak each other’s musical language right off the bat.”
The other members who joined the band later, including Trevin Little (sax), who went to Morehead State University, as well as DeQuan Tunstull (keyboard) and Fiona Palensky (drums), both of whom went to the University of Louisville, came to Del’s attention during jam sessions. She quickly discovered that making music with them felt just as easy and smooth as it did with her other band members.
“It was this innate, instinctual kind of trust,” she says. “I really enjoyed the way they play their instruments.”
Merging the two groups of musicians required a lot of practice to ensure everyone knew what they were doing and didn’t step on each other’s toes musically.
“A seven-piece band can sound like chaos really quickly,” Del says.
It was important for the musicians to think of themselves as a big-band group, even though that isn’t the style of music they play. Del says every player in the band has a role.
“Our music works very much like a play,” she says.
When the septet began playing gigs together, they were performing only jazz standards but would sprinkle in some covers of songs by Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. The more frequently they performed, however, the more often they heard fans ask, “Why don’t you play some original songs?”
A tune called “Metamorphosis” by Boyer was the creative spark that led the band to begin delving into making their own music. When he brought the sheet music to the band, he knew what the vibe was and where he envisioned it going.
“The song had been a work in progress for a few years,” Del says.
The band recorded the song in 2019 and released it in 2020. Their five-song EP called “Chrysalis” came out in June of 2021.
Del describes the band’s music as jazz-influenced, with elements of soul as well as rhythm and blues. Their musical influences are artists who have dabbled in different styles that fuse jazz with other genres. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Erykah Badu, pianist Robert Glasper, and Esperanza Spalding are among the band’s many inspirations. Kiana & the Sun Kings get together every week to practice. If they are preparing for a gig, they spend most of their time rehearsing. When time allows, they work on writing.
It can be easy for someone who isn’t a musician and doesn’t know anything about being a performer to think that time rehearsing and performing are the only two chunks of time that bands spend doing anything, but this is far from the truth. In reality, there is a lot of preliminary community engagement that happens before, during and after performing.
“I’m always putting myself in venues and in front of bigger clients that would book us for corporate events or weddings,” Del says. “Before the pandemic, I would go to three shows in a night.”
Supporting the music community is both a natural interest for her as well as a way to make connections that might lead to shows for the band.
Participating in the local music scene made Del realize there was a dearth of accessible spaces for musicians who weren’t able to go to college and study music. She and her bandmates recognized that just because someone doesn’t have an education in jazz theory doesn’t mean they aren’t real musicians with skill and talent who need jam space. While Del lived in Germantown, with the support of neighbors and an open-minded property manager she created Half Step Haus, a space in her living room where musicians of all stripes could perform.
The idea behind this monthly event was to give musicians a weekday option to perform, so they didn’t have to forgo money-making opportunities on weekends, with alcohol-free options and a suggested donation at the door rather than a cover charge. The Sun Kings acted as the house band for Half Step Haus and would help a self-taught or new musician play some tunes in front of a crowd.
“It was my attempt at building a healthy and non-transactional community within the music community,” Del says.
COVID put a stop to those efforts. With 50 people in a Germantown living room, there was no safe way to make it happen. Plus, Del ended up relocating to an apartment during the long months of the pandemic. She is still interested in continuing what she started.
“We’re brainstorming some ways to continue doing it, but it is difficult to find all-ages spaces that we can welcome people into,” Del says.
Right before the pandemic, Kiana & the Sun Kings had just started to branch out beyond Louisville to perform regionally. They had some gigs in St. Louis and were hoping to play in Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Now that all members are fully vaccinated, they are looking forward to performing again regularly in Louisville and beyond.
“The pandemic put a hard stop on all the plans we had made,” Del says.
The will soon perform at the Ascension Lutheran Church Jazz Festival, which will take place on September 11, 2021.
While performing at a bar or restaurant, Del says jazz “is the secondary layer to whatever it is you’re doing, whereas with a festival you go to see the music specifically and everything else is a secondary layer.”
Organizer Todd Hildreth teaches at Bellarmine, so the band was very familiar with this event and is delighted to participate.
“Kiana & the Sun Kings are a relatively new group in Louisville, but they’ve done a lot in a very short period of time,” Hildreth says. “They are a focused, driven group with their own sound.”
For more info on Kiana & the Sun Kings, visit sunkingsjazz.com.