Music fans in Texas and beyond might recognize Jeff Bryant as the versatile keyboardist, pedal steel player and vocalist they’ve seen performing with Alpha Rev, Cory Morrow and Hudson Moore, playing rock and country with equal ease. In fact, the Austin-based artist has been so busy performing with others, he’s just now getting around to taking center stage himself with the release of Sleeping with the Lights On, his debut solo effort.
The seven-track album showcases the talents of an artist with strong songwriting skills, a resonant tenor and a warm, fluid pop/R&B sound, embellished with some cool jazz-funk and Americana leanings. Inspirations from Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo to Bruce Hornsby and John Mayer can be heard within these tracks, but the songs are all original — and incredibly catchy.
Bryant, who wrote and produced all but one track himself (with vocal production by Rachel Loy), says of the collection, “I like to think of it as a pop record that also delivers the raw, organic vibe you find in rock and Americana.”
He crafted that vibe at Britton Beisenherz’s Ramble Creek Studio in Southwest Austin, gathering friends including Alpha Rev guitarist Zak Loy (Live, Ed Kowalczyk) and drummer Clint Simmons (Seth James, Gina Chavez, Dawn & Hawkes); Zak’s cousin, Nashville bassist, vocalist, producer and session player Rachel Loy (Hank Williams Jr., Carrie Underwood); Cory Morrow drummer Brian Ferguson; and Steve Miller Band guitarist Jacob Peterson (Bryant plays with Ferguson and Peterson in their cleverly named side project, the Harvey Kartel). The lone song not recorded with this group was “Let It In,” which Bryant co-wrote with Jeff Moore and Pat Green keyboardist Clay Corn and tracked earlier at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas, and Moore’s home studio in Austin, Texas.
Bryant says the project wouldn’t have happened without his wife, Alexis, who loved his songs — particularly the title track — and pushed him to get in the studio.
Maybe she loves “Sleeping With the Lights On” because it sounds, at first listen, like a love song. But it might also be a song for a child; Bryant and Alexis have a 2-year-old son. Starting out with a majestic tempo, it builds toward a dramatic, feedback-laden Peterson solo before quieting again.
“Grace,” a more straight-ahead ballad, showcases Bryant’s expressive voice and lyrical dexterity. His Jason Mraz side comes out on “Addie,” an upbeat, lightly funky pop tune propelled by Simmons’ and Ferguson’s double drumming — a feature on every song except “Let It In,” on which Simmons plays alone. But unlike the twinning heard in, say, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, a Bryant favorite, he went for complimentary, not identical, beats.
“One would lay the meat-and-potatoes groove and the other would add the special sauce,” he says, adding, “I didn’t want a super-polished pop record. I wanted something that was a little raw. For me, it all starts with drums and bass. I love a good groove, and I love a really tight rhythm section.”
That’s evident in the pop-funk fusion of “You Don’t Know,” which displays Bryant’s vocal range and more tasty Peterson licks; in the jazzy touches of “Not Gonna Run”; and certainly in the syncopated jazz/R&B textures and pop-rock feel layered together in “Let It In.”
“Goodbye,” the final song, gets downright theatrical with its tempo changes, organ swirls, chittering percussion, big harmonies and especially, Bryant’s snarky delivery.
It might not be the sweetest tune, but it sure sounds as if those involved had a great time recording it, an observation Bryant confirms.
“Ultimately, the reason I did this is because I got a bunch of friends who are fantastic musicians, and dear to me, to go in the studio, take songs that I wrote, and really try to develop them into what they ended up being,” he reveals, adding, “That was the fun of it for me.”
Bryant, a self-described “closet singer-songwriter,” began composing only about 10 years ago, but he’s been making music for most of his life. Following in his mother’s and grandmother’s piano-playing footsteps, he started classical lessons as a child growing up in DeSoto, Texas, south of Dallas.
“I remember my piano teacher getting frustrated with me because I wouldn’t stick to what was on the page,” confesses Bryant, who would improvise to compensate for not practicing. “I always had this inclination to want to swing things,” he adds. “I definitely got my hands slapped a few times.”
He grew up in the church, but developed a passion for blues and jazz in high school; by then, he’d been playing French horn for several years and joined the school band, then the jazz band.
“That’s where I really started to blossom; I developed a love for playing and performing,” he says. “I did theater arts in high school and college; I just loved being on the stage.”
In high school, he also discovered he could sing something besides church music — though he declared a church-music major at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.
“I spent my freshman year doing something I was completely uncomfortable and unfamiliar with, which was singing opera,” he recalls. “I took diction classes and sang Italian arias.” Then he changed his major to business.
But that vocal training clearly paid off, just like another college experience: helping to build a coffee bar in the cigar shop where he worked. That led to establishing and managing Monk’s, a coffee shop/art gallery/music venue still operating in Abilene. “It was a super cool, hip spot,” Bryant says. “We even booked the Civil Wars before they blew up.”
That was after he’d returned from Boston, where he’d moved to take a break from college and Texas after falling in love with the city during a visit. There, he worked in the original location of Boston’s most famous bar, Cheers, and hung out in jazz clubs, admiring (and envying) the talented Berklee students onstage. He also met his Vermont-born wife in New England.
Eventually returning to Dallas/Fort Worth, he started playing covers in restaurants and gigging with R&B/soul artist Dan Rocha.
“He was paramount in terms of me picking up a pen and paper and writing,” Bryant says. “He’s a phenomenal writer, a phenomenal singer and one hell of a guitar player. And there’s just something about his soulful songs and lyrics that I completely identified with.”
Bryant also hooked up with a Fort Worth country band, and one day, the former bass player told him Cory Morrow needed a keyboard player. He cold-called Morrow’s manager, then hung out with the band after they played a Grapevine gig. They hired him — without an audition — that night. They figured he could play; the test was how easy he’d be to get along with on the road.
He moved to Austin for that gig, and wound up on bills with Merle Haggard, Ray Price and other country greats — and even hanging with Willie.
“I’ve had the privilege of sharing the same stage with so many great artists and bands,” Bryant says. To give back, he teaches music for a month each summer to mostly disadvantaged elementary-school kids. It helps him keep his life and career in perspective.
“Even though I’m trying to support my family with music,” Bryant explains, “at the end of the day, we say we’re playing music. And I’m fortunate to be able to play for a living.”