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).