Melina Paris, Music Columnist
The Nick Smith Project is a hot one to keep an eye on. I saw Smith perform music from his latest CD, Influenced, this past March at the Jazz Chapel Room in Long Beach. Months later, I’m still playing his music on repeat, while recalling my conversation with him about music and the importance of paying homage to the artists that inspired and blazed a trail for others to follow.
Smith put together a top-notch cast for that night, featuring Ray Fuller on guitar, Chris Coleman on drums, Vashon Johnson on bass, Michael Hunter on trumpet and vocalist Marian Marie along with the twice Grammy nominated saxophonist, Najee.
A significant part of my impression of the evening is likely owed to the role played by Jazztyme Entertainment, a company that specializes in putting together intimate concerts at dining venues.
The producer of Jazztyme, Anthony Le Noir knew what he was doing by booking the Jazz Chapel Room, which is located in the same hotel as the fine-dining restaurant, the Skyroom.
Set in the snow white décor of the Jazz Chapel room, Marian Marie, in a well-fitted black lace dress, opened the show with a cover of Jill Scott’s “A Long Walk.” Hunter attached a mute on his trumpet and started jamming with Najee on his flute, forming a sublime harmony. Najee played his flute at least as much as his saxophone that evening and it worked beautifully.
The band next performed “Mo Chillin,” from Influenced next. This is a straight ahead jazz single with Najee improvising followed by Hunter’s full robust trumpet.
With Smith laying down an intricate, multi-layered solo on keys, Coleman was continuously scaling and building on drums. Then, Johnson painted the stage floor thick with bass. This is bona fide jazz taking you on an improvisational ride to venture out with the music — wherever it leads.
Next, they performed a celebratory tune, ironically titled, “Mack’s Blues.” Horn harmonies on this original number were exceptional and Smith’s dexterity on the ivories compelled you to move. Smith’s music and arranging skills are highly intuitive. He utilizes sound modules and samplers, building the most creative expressions, for example, augmenting a vibraphone or an organ into a number and creating a surprising elevation.
The agile guitarist, Ray Fuller, took the lead on the “Wes Montgomery” track, another multi layered tune with rich, full chords. Fullers nimble-fingered, unremitting playing befitted musical foreplay while Smith hit the stratosphere, driving the high notes on keys. Najee flowed into this mood synchronized on flute, cool, gifted and impassioned.
Between sets, I was able to speak separately with Najee and Smith. I learned from my conversation with Najee that he had flown in from New York the day before the show and had just walked into rehearsal.
“Because we didn’t over rehearse, there was an element of freedom in there,” Najee said about the evening’s performance. “Nick is actually a very good prolific writer. When you read his charts you’ve got to pay attention, he puts a lot into it.”
Najee is recording a CD called Signature. He described it as his first album not to include A-list musicians on it.
“I’m introducing people [who] the world hasn’t already heard,” Najee said. “A guitarist by the name of Chuck Johnson, who tours with me, sings on this album. I also have a couple features with Robert Damper, who’s played with Kenny G for about 30 years.”
From my conversation with Smith, it was clear his intentions for Influence wasn’t just to create a groove for people to dance to but to offer up a kind of musicology lesson for the generations of folks who are not taught music.
“I was lucky to come from a musical background and at a time when schools taught music,” he said. “Many kids are only into the technical aspects today. They want to create a beat, but how, if they don’t know the elements of the drums?”
It wasn’t as if we had a lot time to talk, but conversation quickly went deep with Smith casting a critical gaze at the repackaging and branding of rhythm and blues as “smooth jazz” and too many people not knowing the difference.
“You‘ve got to have a foundation,” Smith said. “If you’re not into the traditions, at least know the difference.”
We seem to be of the mindset that if you don’t hear vocals, it’s jazz and that’s not true. He noted that there are a lot of great R&B songs that did not have vocals, such as music from groups like Earth Wind and Fire.
“We need to stop putting things in categories,” Smith said, noting that it misleads people and makes the process of creating more difficult for musicians who have dedicated their lives studying the craft.
Smith became animated at this point.
“Why should it be? I may have this much knowledge (gesturing with his hands spread wide), but I can only use this much,” he said after drawing the palms of his hands significantly closer. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with many people like: Najee, Eddie Harris Hank Crawford… These guys gave me some valuable information and I want to hopefully leave something positive to someone else and I hope that they can benefit and learn from it…. I just want to give back.”
You can see The Nick Smith Project perform quarterly through Jazztyme Entertainment Shows in Long Beach at The Sky Room and in Beverly Hills at HOME (House of Music and Entertainment).Read More