Using gospel elements in a jazz context can be a hit-or-miss proposition. Depending on the background and integrity of the musicians involved, the results can often be trite, or shamelessly bent towards commercialism. Upon hearing Portrait it's obvious that saxophonist/composer Melvin Smith is equally adept in both genres. Smith is able to successfully blur the lines between the tradition of the spiritual and the inventiveness of jazz; demonstrating the obvious connections missing from the sounds of so many contemporary improvisers.
Portrait is full of exceptional musical interplay, especially between Smith and trumpeter Reggie Pittman. Smith's reworking of the spirituals "Go Down Moses and "Wade in the Water allow for the two front-line soloists to stretch out over a swinging modal backdrop. Smith's sleek soprano blends in nicely with Pittman's flugelhorn on the Latin-tinged "Manasseh. The two weave through the twists and turns of the challenging melody in perfect simpatico. The lengthy duet between Smith and pianist Gregory Royals on "God Bless the Child is a serene meditation that recalls the spiritual renderings of Charles Lloyd.
Another stand-out moment on the disc is Smith's hard-driving lines on his harmonically rich composition "Trylenera, presented in two parts. The saxophonist mixes modern ideas with a tone reminiscent of past masters like Hank Mobley and George Coleman.
Portrait is an honest representation of an artist willing to take chances while respecting the musical traditions of his past. Smith has the potential to reach a broad audience without compromising an ounce of artistic integrity.
Track Listing: Lord I Lift Your Name On High; Go Down Moses/Wade in the Water; Manasseh; Trylenera (part 1); Someday We'll All Be Free; 1750 Washington St.; God Bless the Child; Trylenera (part 2); We Shall Overcome.
Personnel: Melvin Smith: soprano and tenor saxophone, piano overdubs; Lino C. Gomez: acoustic and electric bass; Reggie Pittman: trumpet, flugelhorn; Stephen Lee: piano (1-4, 9); Gregory Royals: piano (5-8); Sam Knight: drums (1-4, 9); Ezra Henry: drums (5, 6, 8).
I was first exposed to jazz when I was tiny. My earliest memory is watching Ella Fitzgerald scat on a Christmas special when I was no older than four. Like many who are from tiny towns, my first extended exposure was listening to the high school jazz band when I was a kid
I was first exposed to jazz when I was tiny. My earliest memory is watching Ella Fitzgerald scat on a Christmas special when I was no older than four. Like many who are from tiny towns, my first extended exposure was listening to the high school jazz band when I was a kid. For some reason I remember an arrangement of Hey Jude they did. My first real exposure was Stan Kenton in the Smithville, MO high school gym. Kenton and the band director there were old friends, so he would play there from time to time. My dad took me without telling me where we were going and it was the only show he ever took me to. I remember that Bobby Shew played Send In Clowns and I damn near levitated I was so excited. The huge sound and amazing chords floored me. I believe I was 13 at the time. I immediately started practicing and taking lessons. Music became a passion and nearly a career. I also listened to Dick Wright's Jazz Show on KANU every night. I can't even start to explain what I learned lying in bed listening to Dick talk about jazz. I met him once when I was struggling to put together a solo for Joy Spring playing in a combo at KU. Stopped by his office and asked for recommendations. He showed up at my jazz ensemble rehearsal the next day with a tape with example solos. What a kind man Dick Wright was.
My advice to new listeners is to stop worrying about what music is important and focus on music you like. I spent quite a bit of my music life listening to important music I didn't necessarily like. Must say I have quite a bit more fun now listening to music that I deeply enjoy. Some of it is even important.
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