For Ryan Nealon, singing onstage is a breath of fresh air. Alongside his band Moonlight Express, the second-year ethnomusicology student has projected his voice from a recording studio in Melnitz Hall to JazzReggae Festival auditions this past spring.
Nealon, lead vocalist for the band, organized Moonlight Express last fall with fellow students he met during his first months at UCLA and music department colleagues for a Spring Sing 2014 audition. Since then, the band has done more than it originally planned, recently recording and releasing a single, “Love in Blue,” and planning to perform at the Fowler Museum and Kerckhoff Coffeehouse this fall.
“I do think our group has potential and the main thing is just for our group to enjoy what we are doing,” said Sara Sithi-Amnuai, second-year ethnomusicology student with a concentration in jazz studies and the band’s trumpet player. “Right now we want to bring out more originals and we’re really thinking of doing that and playing music that we enjoy.”
In “Love in Blue,” Nealon said Moonlight Express presents a jazz-fusion mix of horns, backup vocals, bass, guitar, drums and keyboards. Nealon said he wrote the chord structure and then brought it to the band for manifestation into a full track.
The band recorded the song on campus in Melnitz Hall with second-year ethnomusicology student Nashir Janmohamed, who produced the single, and second-year ethnomusicology student Nicolo Scolieri, who was the sound engineer.
Positive feedback for the single has prompted the band to plan on recording again in the coming school year and to create an album to be released sometime in 2015.
“What I wanted to do with a band as big as we are was to bring back popular music with jazz music,” Nealon said. “How I would describe our style is jazz, funk and pop, a mesh of all three.”
Moonlight Express auditioned for Spring Sing and JazzReggae Festival with its song “Love in Blue” and decided to move forward with the band despite not being chosen to perform.
“We auditioned for Spring Sing and didn’t make it but it was still a really good experience because we put a lot of effort into it,” Sithi-Amnuai said. “It seemed like the judges enjoyed our music, and it’s not the end of the world because we still have so much more to do and we are going to audition again.”
Nealon said the band is currently working on writing new songs over the summer while its members are in separate locations to perform at Kerkhoff Coffeehouse and Fowler Out Loud during fall quarter.
Sithi-Amnuai said the soul-funk band Earth, Wind & Fire is a major influence for the band.
“(Earth, Wind & Fire) is really groovy and I think that that’s something that I wanted to bring to the band,” Sithi-Amnuai said. “There’s not a lot of bands out there that have a live horn section and having that in this band is special.”
Michael Liao, saxophonist of Moonlight Express and a second-year ethnomusicology student with a concentration in jazz studies, said having a vocabulary in jazz allows the horn section to add a dynamic mix of sounds to the music.
“Sometimes Ryan Nealon will want to do a cover of a song that does not even have horns,” Liao said. “We can usually work together to come up with some pretty cohesive horn lines for those songs.”
After the first year of playing together, Nealon said Moonlight Express plans on auditioning for Spring Sing and the JazzReggae Festival again and performing at Ecochella and other music events on campus.
“All of us are friends outside of the band and hang out so it’s a really friendly environment,” Nealon said. “I could bring in a song that’s not even finished and we could just play and have a good time.”