Playing It Forward: A Pair From Vibraphonist Anthony Smith

Dan Bilawsky By

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There are two ways to look at the vibraphone: as an instrument with constructional properties that limit those who stand before it or as a portal to possibility that challenges players to rise above those limitations. Anybody with a pragmatic bone in their body understands and accepts the former as a truth of sorts, as yarn (or rubber) on metal can only do so many things. But every vibraphonist who's made their mark tends to lean toward the latter line of thinking, milking those bars for all that they're worth rather than bemoaning the instrument's shortcomings. In tying certain practical-cum-creative concerns—mallet choices, motor usage, pedal considerations—to compositional and improvisational approach(es), many a vibraphonist has managed to stand apart. There's a reason, after all, that nobody is likely to mistake Lionel Hampton for Gary Burton on record, confuse Jason Adasiewicz with Joe Locke in a blindfold test, or mix up the sound of Mike Mainieri with that of Warren Wolf. Personality and authentic artistry transcends the instrument every time.

Such is the case with vibraphonist Anthony Smith. With these two albums—by-products of the former Californian's first two years in New York—Smith makes his mark through sonic consistency and the adoption of a form of stylistic pluralism. In other words, he's forged a specific sound with his band—a quintet that includes saxophonist Kenny Pexton, guitarist Syberen van Munster, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Mark Ferber—but the group isn't tied to any specific school of thought. These five play it forward in so many different ways, toying with subtext and strategy from song to song.

The Anthony Smith Quintet
Play It Forward, Volume One
Self Produced

The opening number on this album—the lightly funky "Condo In The Jungle"—helps to establish certain aural parameters for this group, but the music that follows indicates that all roads remain open for travel: "Park Slope Sasquatch" is a metric maze and a taste of modernism, twisting when you least expect yet playing toward certain expectations; "What Time Allows " is a light touch number with buoyant, waltz-esque underpinnings, glowing and flowing in sensitive fashion; "Cautious Optimist" is reflective and true to its name, dreamy and lyrical in character but never completely at ease; and "Propulsion" is a hard-nosed, bop-indebted number that's no-nonsense New York in every way.

The final two tracks on the album—a brief, riff-supported query for vibes, bass, and guitar dubbed "Before You Realize" and an enthralling, prismatic "Collapse"—help to further the notion that Smith is a musical seeker, not a settler. His pianistic approach to the instrument and avoidance any of any manipulative techniques—pedal-down overtone showers, effects of any sort—may mark him as a centrist on the instrument itself, but his music paints him as an inquisitive artist and unchained spirit.

The Anthony Smith Quintet
Play It Forward, Volume Two
Self Produced

Both of these albums were recorded at the same marathon session, but fatigue clearly never set in. The band sounds fresh as can be on each and every number, delivering Smith's many and varied reflections on life in the Big Apple with clear eyes and open ears.

Play It Forward, Volume Two takes off with the semi-funk of "Maroon Corduroy Hipness," but Smith, once again, quickly alters his course. Bluesy swing surfaces next on "Not In My House," cool-headed sounds win out when "Empathy" follows, and intensity fuels the busy and harried "Logistics" as the second half of the album begins. The last number on that list proves to be a most ambitious offering, so Smith wisely balances that out with what's likely the simplest and most accessible composition of the thirteen under discussion here: the soulful, Cannonball Adderley-worthy "Welcome To Brooklyn." That penultimately-placed piece is absolutely irresistible. The album then reaches its conclusion with the ever-developing "Spring Isn't Here." It's a piece that seems to be built on the idea of continual change and renewal, something that strikes to the core of life in old New York.

While it's a jazz cliché to say that a player defies easy categorization, it doesn't make it any less true when it comes to Anthony Smith. These polyglot albums paint a picture of Smith that's full of contradictions: his work is cerebral yet earthy, he's got plenty of heart and musical muscle, he's thoroughly modern yet fully aware of the past, and he has fixed ambitions that can materialize in open fashion. Strange as it may seem, those contradictions come to define him. That's the take away from these potent yet poetic albums.

Tracks and Personnel

Play It Forward, Volume One

Tracks: Condo In The Jungle, Park Slope Sasquatch; What Time Allows; Cautious Optimist; Propulsion; Before You Realize; Collapse.

Personnel: Anthony Smith: vibraphone; Kenny Pexton: saxophone; Syberen Van Munster: guitar; Petros Klampanis: acoustic bass; Mark Ferber: drums.

Play It Forward, Volume Two

Tracks: Maroon Corduroy Hipness; Not In My House; Empathy; Logistics; Welcome To Brooklyn; Spring Isn't Here.

Personnel: Anthony Smith: vibraphone; Kenny Pexton: saxophone; Syberen Van Munster: guitar; Petros Klampanis: acoustic bass; Mark Ferber: drums.

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