Let’s begin our discussion by first noting the band’s unique, intriguing name: TickleJuice. Is it something like pickle juice? Is it a secretion resulting from stimulation of the underarms? Is it a refreshing bourbon cocktail with a sweet-and-sour kick? James Rohr, a guest keyboardist, famously “poured TickleJuice all over his organ” for inspiration. People are often intrigued or puzzled by this moniker. Some “get it” right away, while others have to hear the music to understand.
James Merenda, creator and bandleader, explains that the name came to him as a response to heavy-handed and ponderous, self-important jazz group names; the name ‘TickleJuice,’ though, cannot be taken too seriously. This is what sets the tone for the band.
James Merenda, alto saxophone, keyboard, and composer, had pursued many ambitious projects in the Boston area, around the U.S., and Europe, prior to TickleJuice. Hard on the heels of a comprehensive exploration and sonic documentation of Charles Mingus, Merenda and trumpeter Tom Duprey found themselves talking about the pursuance of their musical passions. Duprey, an alumnus of many cutting-edge ensembles, including the Mandala Octet, enthusiastically agreed to play some tunes. Thus, TickleJuice was born.
Duprey on cornet, a brother of the trumpet, remains essential to the TickleJuice sound. His mastery of the instrument, flexibility, and creativity make him irreplaceable. Filling out the band with some recent alumni of The Mingus Project, the group rehearsed and performed around Boston, allowing Merenda to try out different musicians and combinations. While some musicians remained for a time and, others, just a couple of gigs, guitars have always been featured in TickleJuice.
Three years into the TickleJuice project, the band membership began to gel, and the group embarked on a recording project. This project became the band’s first album, Roots to the Stars, released in 2014. Due to the constantly evolving nature of the band, combined with Merenda’s prolific compositional output, the band had already shifted towards a new repertoire of more “acoustic” sound by the album’s 2014 release.
The music is demanding and virtuosic, and needs more than a casual approach to work. Merenda is an inspiring bandleader, but it takes a certain kind of musician to play the music of TickleJuice. The present band members include James Merenda, Vanessa Morris, Tom Duprey, Jon Dreyer, Miki Matsuki, David Hawthorne and Paul Dilley, a group of advanced players of varying musical backgrounds. These talented musicians were brought together by their regard for Merenda and his music, and tempered by hard work, rehearsing and performing together for more than two years.
TickleJuice has been very active performing and leading clinics since the beginning, both close to home in Boston and Cambridge, and farther afield. Some TickleJuice performance highlights include The Acton Jazz Café, Jamaica Plain Music Festival, The LilyPad in Cambridge, Recital Series at St. John the Evangelist in Boston, MacArthur winner Ran Blake’s 75th birthday concert, The Riverwalk Café, Medfield Jazz Festival, several jazz concerts in partnership with local high schools, and a four-year, ongoing series at the Outpost in Cambridge.
Certainly, TickleJuice recalls the music of Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, George Adams, and the whole pantheon of Improvisers of American Music of the 20th century, but Merenda’s music is not imitative or derivative. Merenda, a mature voice in contemporary music, has assimilated the lessons of the masters, taken the next step, and created a vital, inspired and inspirational group. Profound, yes, but not too serious: TickleJuice!
TickleJuice in the Media
- "The fearless alto saxophonist, composer, and pianist James Merenda...never fails to bring it." --Jon Garelick, The Arts Fuse
- "Mix Sun Ra with Charles Mingus, stir in some Miles Davis, add a dash of Ornette Coleman, and simmer, carefully folding in Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane." --Cameron Small, Medfield Hometown Weekly