Seattleite Charlie Smith has his roots as a saxophonist, studying under the late, great Don Lanphere; he’s also had Dave Peck as a piano tutor, trombone trendsetter Julian Priester as a sideman, and Jim Knapp as an instructor in composing and arranging. For a young musician (Smith looks to be in his late 20s or early 30s), one would be hard pressed to find more inspirational mentors.
On Ahead and Behind, the debut disc by his eleven-piece orchestra, Smith comfortably confines himself to the composer/arranger’s chair. Leading the band through magically changing planes of tonal colors, Smith creates an experience that puts the listener in a blissful state of childlike wonderment, of being captivated by a pink-orange sunset or the ocean’s seductive movements.
Like most modern big bands, the Charlie Smith Circle owes much to Gil Evans. Evans’ patented epic expanses of soft horns are especially evident in the five-part “Suite for Syd.” And, if one listens hard, traces of Claude Thornhill’s cool-toned textures are also present – an indirect but probable influence, since both Evans and Lanphere cut their baby teeth in the groundbreaking Thornhill band. There are even hints of orchestrated 1970s soul a la Stevie Wonder, the Philly Gamble-Huff sound, and certain acts on the CTI label. But another, perhaps much stronger, influence would seem to be that of David Axelrod, the producer/arranger who not only worked with jazzers like Cannonball Adderley but created his own psychedelic big band-baroque style. Axelrod’s late-'60s/early-'70s LPs for EMI and Capitol have been rediscovered by the DJ set, and many of his mind-melting cuts have since shown up on volumes of the Dusty Fingers reissues that grace the turntables of chill-out rooms around the globe. Thus, a huge, untapped market outside the jazz realm awaits discovery of Smith’s similar brand of imaginative sound, and Conduit would be wise to go after it.
While “Suite for Syd” is its centerpiece, Ahead and Behind ’s defining moment is Smith’s arrangement of “Pure Imagination,” the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly-penned chestnut from the Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory soundtrack. Pianist Dawn Clement’s metronomic intro feels like an underwater alarm clock as she plinks it out beneath the rising brass; as the tune unfolds the focus shifts to impeccable vocalist Johanna Kunin. Although her angelic alto supplies sublime, lyricless vocadence for most of the album, on this track Kunin delivers the words with clear, ringing purity, framing their fairy-tale innocence in her own singsong mystery. The tune also holds some excellent, serpentine sax sparring courtesy of multi-reedist Mark Taylor and tenor man Stuart MacDonald. (This rendition would be perfect for the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s forthcoming Wonka remake, and probably a lot cheaper to license than one by Diana Krall or some other chart hog.) Additional kudos go to Clement for her riveting, nimble solo in the bopped-up final section of “Suite for Syd.”
A consistent opening effort by one of jazz’s new young lions, Ahead and Behind shows that Charlie Smith knows how to put together some exceptional music, as well as a first-rate band to play it. Like the mystical twists of the mazelike compositions on this record, it’s tough to guess exactly where he’ll go next. But we look forward to tagging along.
Personnel: Craig Flory - Baritone Sax, Stuart MacDonald - Tenor Sax, Chris Stover - Trombone, Mark Taylor - Saxophone, Jay Roulston - Trumpet, Dawn Clement - Piano, Charlie Smith - Arranger, Leader.
Track Listing: 1. Ahead and Behind, 2. Pure Imagination, 3. Halcyon Dance 4. Part One: Hereafter, 5. Interlude One, 6. Part Two: Rememberance, 7. Interlude Two, 8. Part Three: Resolve, 9. Melancholy Dance.
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