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Enoch is a soulfully refreshing pianist and composer.
“Misfit, misfit, misfit/You will never fit in/Nonconformist creature of peculiar inclination,” Sarah Elizabeth Charles sings over and over on the hypnotic opening track of Misfits, pianist-composer Enoch Smith Jr.’s follow up to Church Boy, his acclaimed 2010 debut CD.
Born on November 24, 1978, in Rochester, New York, and now based Haledon, New Jersey, Smith is a self-taught pianist who has considered himself a misfit since the time he was accepted by the Berklee College of Music, even though he didn’t even know how to read music or use correct keyboard fingering at that time. He definitely had a lot of catching up to do.
“During my first year of being there,” he says, “I saw how advanced everyone was and there I was learning how to read music on the fly and trying to pass all the proficiency exams. It was amazing and intimidating and exciting all at the same time. I definitely saw that I didn’t fit into the mold.”
With Misfits, Smith turns the usually negative term into a positive by embracing his uniqueness and drawing on his extensive experience as a church pianist and his passion for jazz. “I’m content with who I am,” he says.
Of the disc’s 13 tracks, eight are original compositions with music and lyrics by the pianist. “Wise Man” was inspired pianist Ellis Marsalis, one of Smith’s heroes, both as a musician and family man. Smith composed “Hush” as a lullaby for his daughter Simone, now 7.
Smith and his family were living in the rough Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn when he composed “Hush.” “There were just drugs and crime everywhere,” he recalls. “There was a crack house around the corner that got busted; they had a shootout. I had to dive over Simone as the bullets were flying. I remember saying to myself, ‘We gotta get outta here!’ I wanted to have something better for her.”
Simone herself joins her dad vocally on “Alright,” the CD’s short, inspirational closing song. The lilting “She Moves Me” is the only instrumental among Smith’s originals and was written for his wife Gabriella. The soulful “Bring It on Home,” Smith says, is about the uplifting feeling one gets from coming home from a long day’s work and being greeted by a smiling wife and children. (Enoch and Gabriella have one other child, a 19-month-old daughter named Drew.) Smith wrote “I Want You” for the 2007 love story of the same title by independent filmmaker Nefertiti Nguvu.
Misfits contains unique treatments of four non-original songs. The instrumental “Caravan” by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol is Smith’s tribute to Ellington, whose music Smith fell in love with while attending middle school in Rochester. The Beatles’ classic “Blackbird” was penned by Paul McCartney as a salute to the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.
“I’ve always loved the Beatles,” Smith says. “I always loved the way they arranged music, the vocals, and some of the unorthodox recording techniques. And ‘Blackbird’ is a song that goes with the Misfits theme. It talks about being free and breaking out of the box and not being chained with the structure you’re presented with.”
The songs on Church Boy, the pianist’s previous release, were inspired by gospel music but were not gospel per se. For Misfits, he decided to include an actual gospel song, the late Reverend Paul Jones’s “I Won’t Complain,” although the Latin tinge Smith gives it is quite different from Jones’s now-classic 1990 recording.
“Love Is Stronger Than Pride” was written and recorded by pop vocalist Sade in 1986 and recorded as an instrumental a decade later by Herbie Hancock for his New Standard album. Although Hancock’s performance of the song inspired the version on Misfits, Smith restores Sade’s lyrics while giving the tune a “grittier” treatment than the original. “You shouldn’t have to cut all the corners and smooth the edges,” he says.
Smith surrounds himself on the CD with some of the brightest young instrumentalists and vocalists in the New York City area. Sangmin Lee was a student at Berklee during the time Smith attended, but the two didn’t know each other because the Seoul, Korea–born drummer could barely speak English at the time. When not playing jazz in the U.S., Singmin tours with Korean pop superstar Rain. Former Detroiter Noah Jackson has been Smith’s bassist of choice ever since Smith heard him at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village. Sarah Elizabeth Charles, whose relaxed phrasing and glowing alto tones voice have been likened favorably to Sade’s, is featured on six selections. Saunders Sermons, formerly with Maxwell and currently with the Susan Tedeschi–Derek Trucks Band, sings on two, and Mavis Poole applies her gospel-hewn chops to one.
Smith is a true “church boy” who was raised in Rochester in the Church of God by Faith, a Pentecostal denomination. Enoch Smith Sr. had once sung in a gospel quartet, and Enoch Jr. began singing at age 3 in his church’s children’s choir, known as “Angels of Faith.” He played trumpet in middle school and drums in church. “The drummer at our church was much better than me, so I never really got a chance to play,” he recalls.
Smith began watching the keyboard players during church services, and one Sunday when the regular pianist didn’t show up, he sat down and began trying to figure out how to play the instrument through trial and error. “I started pressing keys, and it started making sense,” he says.
He continued on as a substitute pianist, although his technique and knowledge of keys was limited. He remembers the choir director telling the choir, ‘Let’s sing a song in a key that Enoch knows,’ then turned to him to ask, “What keys can you play it in?”
“When I came back from college after my first semester,” Smith adds, “I made it a point to go there and play my heart out so they could hear how much I had improved. They were amazed.”
Although he had originally intended on becoming a lawyer and had done several internships at Rochester law firms while still in high school, he decided to interview for admission at Berklee at the suggestion of his high school choir director. “They accepted me on the spot,” Smith says.
Being an untrained musician at a world-class music school may have been intimidating for Smith, but he stuck it out for three years, until he mother became ill and he was forced to drop out.
“There was too much information that they were hammering into my head at one time,” he says of his classes at Berklee. “How much of it I’d gotten didn’t sink in until five or six years later. It was a really great experience—probably the best experience of my life.”
Smith continues playing piano in church. Currently he serves as musical director for two. Following Sunday morning services at Calvary Baptist Church in Paterson, New Jersey, he makes a half-hour trip to the Washington Heights section of Manhattan for afternoon services at United Palace Cathedral, a large church founded by the late, legendary Dr. Frederick J. Ikerenkoetter, better known as Reverend Ike.
Besides appearing in clubs in the New York City area, Smith has performed at the Barbados Jazz Festival and on ABC-TV’s The Rachel Ray Show with Everybody Loves Raymond star Patricia Heaton. He also tours periodically with an edition of the Drifters led by Rick Sheppard.
He never abandoned his interest in law, however, and for the past three years has worked as an aide to New Jersey Assemblywoman Elease Evans, for whom he writes, reviews, and researches legislation and meets with her Paterson-area constituents.
Smith cites Oscar Peterson as his favorite pianist and also has a particular fondness of the gospel-imbued jazz of Bobby Timmons. “He’s not a super-flashy piano player, but his tunes are soulful,” he says of the late Timmons. “It encouraged me that you can go down this road and be successful with the skills you have. Of course, you’ll grow, but you’ve already got what you need. Just own it.”
“Growing up and playing mostly in church, you get a whole different side of what music is all about,” he adds. “For me, it was always more of a spiritual connection than a connection of the head.”
Smith may consider himself a misfit, yet, like Timmons before him, he manages to make his refreshingly different church-derived music fit quite nicely into the ever-evolving jazz tradition. It’s evident in every deeply soulful melody and spirit-lifting lyric on Misfits. •