Jazz at Cam is a successful collaboration between the Cape Fear Jazz Society and the Cameron Art Museum. Throughout its eleven year history, Jazz at Cam has presented a steady flow of North Carolina jazz artists. The monthly Thursday night concerts are very well attended, and the comfortable “artsy” indoor space which seats about 200, has great acoustics. On Thursday, Dec. 2, they presented the celebrated local favorite saxophonist Benny Hill in a duo concert with pianist Brad Merritt.

Although Hill chose the title Unplugged for the program, he never explained what his music is like when “plugged in;” I assume he chose the title Unplugged to mean that we were going to listen to pure and natural Benny Hill without amplification, electronics, or more instrumentalists. The duo of acoustic grand piano and unamplified saxophone was the ideal way to hear Hill and Merritt.

Hill, an alto saxophonist, reminds me of the style of the exceptional tenor saxophonist, Houston Person. Hill’s playing is similar to Person’s because he has a rich and soulful tone, his improvisations are mostly linear (they are melodic and the original melody guides his improvisation), and he inserts both blues feeling and flashes of fast scales and arpeggios. The two musicians both have Southern roots and Southern charm; Person is from South Carolina but now lives in NY, and Hill is a Wilmington native. They both are soft spoken, kind, and charming to the audience.

North Carolina-based pianist Merritt provided Hill with energetic bass and chordal accompaniment. Merritt is an exciting player who has a wide range of technique and dynamics that included stride piano, beautiful impressionistic intros and endings for ballads, powerful chordal sounds of McCoy Tyner, syncopated off-beat comping of Thelonious Monk, and long winding flourishes in the tradition of Oscar Peterson. His improvisations were a nice contrast to Hill, because Merritt was more expansive and would often use substitute chords and take the music to new keys while Hill stayed within the given structure of the tunes.

Hill and Merritt worked very well together in this 90-minute concert with no intermission. There wasn’t a program, but Hill announced each tune. They had a nice variety of tunes and some special original ideas for arrangements. They turned the ballad “Laura” into a funky jazz tune along with nicely changing some of the chords of the original. On the normally easy-swinging “The Glory of Love,” the duo played their fastest tempo of the concert and flawlessly performed a very catchy and tricky ending.

One unannounced piece was a beautiful slow tune on which Hill’s tone and sensitivity really shone through. I thought it might have been a spiritual that Hill and Merritt transformed into a jazz ballad, creating a very reverent mood. Hill didn’t solo on this tune and only played the melody, but Merritt took a long and adventurous solo that had several different climaxes. Hill asked the audience if they knew song’s title, and when no one answered, Hill said it was Merritt’s original song titled “If I See You Again.”

There were other times during their performance when I felt the influence of Gospel music underlying their interpretations, such as on “I Thought About You.” The tune began in free time, but by the second chorus they were playing with a blues driven tempo.

The program’s other tunes were Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

The variety of tunes and the duo’s fine playing made for a very enjoyable concert, and they were given a well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion. They are indeed a solid duo, fitting squarely into the mainstream jazz tradition. If the reader is interested in other fine jazz duos, I suggest listening to the great works of Joey Calderazzo/Branford Marsalis and Bill Evans/Cannonball Adderley.

Lastly, the work of Jazz at Cam is to be applauded. The remainder of their 2021-22 series includes monthly concerts in January, February, March, and April at the Cameron Art Museum.