The Shining Lights with Matt Stansberry
8 p.m. Thursday
UCO Jazz Lab
100 E. Fifth, Edmond
Thursday will be a sort of homecoming for The Shining Lights, celebrating the release of their eight-song EP, “Taking the Hill,” at Edmond’s University of Central Oklahoma Jazz Lab.
The album’s an adventurous blend of rock, folk, pop and jazz stretched across a singer/songwriter’s frame. The songs bubble with melodic warmth, while just below the smooth surface, lithe guitars slalom around ringing cymbals and snare snaps. Overall, the duo’s sound suggests Steely Dan gone all David Gray.
“Hill” was recorded in a little home studio shared by Shining Lights’ Nick Smith and Evan Mustard with a few friends, and mastered at the studio inside UCO Jazz Lab.
The venue is where the pair first met, two years ago, while pursuing degrees in guitar performance. Both had released solo EPs and begun touring, before deciding to enter UCO’s jazz program to polish their skills.
“I had this feeling there was a lot more I could learn musically,” Smith said. “I was enjoying what I was able to do songwriting-wise, but I knew that I was missing a lot. So I started studying with some guys around town and they sent me to Danny Vaughan of the Jazz Lab and he said, ‘For this stuff you want to learn, you better enroll.'”
Their diverse approach developed without any discussion, birthing strong pop sensibilities. As onetime solo acoustic artists, their focus is on the song. Their playing is impressive, but subtle enough that it doesn’t overpower the vocals, which are revealed more with each subsequent listen.
“We have a lot of weapons at our disposal,” Mustard said. “So we can look at a chord progression that might be a little more rock-oriented, but we don’t have to play it like a rock song. We can bring in some jazz elements because we understand the theory and what’s going on underneath it.”
With good chemistry from the start, songs followed quickly.
“We noticed that we had similar interests musically and decided to kind of have a jam session. Almost immediately, the songs started coming out,” Smith said. “We were just going off of intuition, really, and it just kind of developed naturally.”
Said Mustard, “Whenever we sat down just to play or to hang out, we ended up having a song or two by the end of the night.”
Almost as fast, the two attempted to record rough versions. They moved into a house and put in a home studio, affording the duo a chance to take their time arranging tracks and to cut the EP at their leisure. The arrangement was comfortable and reduced stress.
They recruited some of the exceptional talents they met at UCO to back them, including drummer Brian McKinney, a technical operations assistant at UCO@ACM, and maintain a somewhat loose lineup.
The Shining Lights often perform simply as a duo, which allows them to tour more cheaply and easily, with far less equipment to lug. A few test runs at local coffee shops confirmed their belief that the songs would still translate live even without a rhythm section.
“The feedback has been great. People say they don’t really miss the other elements that much,” Smith said.
Added Mustard, “The other thing we’ve heard when we play as a duo is that you can actually hear what’s going on between the two guitars a lot better and the harmonies are that much tighter.”
Perhaps the biggest advantage is that with only one other mind to have on the same page, their songs are able to wander as far afield as they please.
“When we were at school, we were playing primarily jazz, so we really thrive on the improvisational side of things,” Smith said. “We really like that part of it, where we can take this wherever we’d like to in a live setting.”
“It kind of keeps it from the mundane,” Mustard said. “There’s always an opportunity to open it up for solos, and we can throw it back and forth, trade eighths or whatever. There’s no telling.”
While they enjoy performing as a duo, they’re equally enthused about the four-piece lineup, and will continue gigging in both forms. They’re even happier for Thursday’s show at the Jazz Lab, which helped make it all possible.
“It feels like a nice pat on the back getting to go back,” Smith said.