Dean DeMerritt had been living in Atlanta for about 20 years when he had a chance to move back to Oklahoma and make a new career out of playing jazz on his bass.
When he got to Tulsa, those Oklahoma sounds came rushing back.
“Many, many years ago, I played in the western swing band Asleep at the Wheel, so I have a long background in western swing,” DeMerritt said. “But I lived in Atlanta, where there’s no western swing. I lived there for 20 years and didn’t play it at all hardly. When I moved back to Tulsa, I reconnected with some of those tunes and some of those musicians.”
With his Dean DeMerritt Jazz Tribe, he took on that experience and infused his jazz with more country themes for his latest album, “Red Dirt Improvisations.”
“I wanted to do some swing and gypsy stuff to throw in there, to make it sound like it really was from Tulsa, Oklahoma,” DeMerritt said.
The album has that sound, thanks to DeMerritt’s approach and thanks to the Tulsa musicians who are featured throughout. They include Scott McQuade on piano, Mike Cameron on tenor sax and clarinet, Jared Johnson on drums, Sean Al Jibouri on guitar, Shelby Eicher on violin, Pat Kelley on guitar, Sandy Shapoval on flute, Sarah Maud on vocals, Angela Lebron Garcia on percussion, Frank Brown on guitar and Austin Stunkard on trumpet.
DeMerritt has brought the tribe together for this album, and let them show off their talents throughout.
“When we go in the studio, I take pains to tell everybody, look this is not a hierarchical top-down effort here,” DeMerritt said. “This is everybody, please hurt my feelings. Tell me what sucks and what needs to be improved. And people do that.”
The album includes four covers, including one by Tulsa native guitarist Pat Kelley, and four of DeMerritt’s compositions.
When it comes to writing his own jazz tunes, it can be a lengthy process, he said.
“For my original tunes, I come up with an idea in my head and I sing it in my head for months, maybe even a year,” DeMerritt said. “Then I finally put it down on paper. When I do that — and I do it the old fashioned way with pen and pencil and staff paper. But then something else comes up and I look at it on paper and that begets new ideas. I want to change things up and throw in different instrumentation and stuff like that.”
DeMerritt moved back to Tulsa three years ago, and found a jazz community that welcomed his bass and a jazz fan base that was eager to hear their work. Even if they weren’t deeply familiar with the history and intricacies of jazz, they were open to the sounds.
“Here’s a city of 900,000 metro area, and you can pretty much hear jazz every night of the week,” he said. “It’s a great thing. That’s not true of a lot of cities Tulsa’s size. We’re fortunate enough to have people here who are open minded enough to listen to it.”
And with “Red Dirt Improvisations,” DeMerritt is giving fans something more to hear in those jazz compositions and improvisations, something close to home.
“With the gypsy stuff and the violin, and the clarinet to some extent, if there were a sound to Oklahoma jazz, this might be it,” DeMerritt said. “I don’t want to put a label on it like the Tulsa sound for jazz, but maybe this would be it. I don’t know.”