Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said, “In dreams begins responsibility.” These are the words that best describe soul jazz guitarist Richard Smith
Richard Smith wasn’t always a jazz guitarist. Although Smith studied classical guitar for twelve years he found himself drawn to more groove oriented music. “I’ve always liked soul music and more earthy stuff,” shared Smith. He would go on to serve as a sideman for such names as Marc Antoine, Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Warren Hill, Dan Siegel and Peter White.
Perhaps his greatest achievement is being teacher to his students in the GuitarMasters program that he founded in 2002. The program motto is: “Find your passion, lose your fear, dream big, talk small, work hard. In your dreams, so shall you become.” This dynamic organization offers free lessons and guitars to at-risk children in the South Central Los Angeles area. GuitarMasters seeks to be a launching pad for lifelong success as a responsible citizen and/or a musician, while preserving the “roots music” of our American heritage.
Smith felt that the traditional methods of teaching the guitar made it difficult for some students to succeed. “We teach all of the culture of the guitar . . . that is the culture of contemporary music. We are teaching something that students get automatically from the get go,” said Smith. Musicians like James Brown, Bonnie Raitt and Snoop Dog are studied in an effort to give the kids something that is easily identifiable,” said Smith.
Also serving a tenured professor at the Thornton School at the University of Southern California, Smith is a pioneer in progressing jazz as a viable medium. “Jazz education is making the same mistakes that classical music made by making it an exclusive, rather than inclusive art form.” Further stating, “The type of jazz I’m in, it’s okay that it is different than Charlie Parker or Miles [Davis] . . . Jazz doesn’t exist to be a purist institution . . . people think smooth jazz is a compromising art form. It’s just a form that has absorbed popular music as a component,” concluded Smith.
Smith’s latest album, Soulidified, melds together the complexities and simplicities of this dynamic educator and performer. The album “solidifies a lot of things” for Smith with “enough variety on it that someone can listen to it and go on a bit of a journey.”
Losing yourself in Soulidified is an easy trip. This collection of songs moves effortlessly moves between deep grooves, funky bass lines, Latin influences and enticing rhythms. Each piece makes a distinctive statement, while maintaining a cohesive vibe. Special guests include: Alex Acuna (percussion), Brian Bromberg (bass), Brian Culbertson (keyboards/trombone), Jeff Kashiwa (sax), Jeff Lorber (keyboards/guitar) and Freddie Ravel (keyboards).
“Incredible music chemistry was going on with these great players. It was a great compliment for me to have them be a part of this,” said Smith.
With the exception of “Sing A Song,” Smith wrote or co-wrote the entire album over a two-year period. Rather than using digitalized equipment, Smith prefers an old-fashioned pencil and paper. He doesn’t try to write music to fit a certain radio format. Stating, “I write good vehicles for my guitar playing. If it makes sense on the guitar, then I write a song about it.”
He’s done okay as a guy who just writes songs for his guitar. “Sing A Song” continues to climb the smooth jazz charts. Featuring Brian Culbertson, the catchy tune is fortified with “funkilicious” grooves. Co-written with Jeff Lorber, “Whatz Up?!” is all about rhythm and soul. Rich layers of instrumentation set the tone, while the bass and guitar drive the music forward. As with most of the album, the arrangement moves within a straightforward melody that captivates.
Smith’s ability to comfortably switch within musical styles is best highlighted by his acoustic guitar work in “Beyond the Mountains” and “Intimato.” While the majority of the album is full of vibrant electric guitar work, these two songs embrace stillness and beauty. This side of Smith is emotionally complex and deeply resonating.
Soulidfied is the work of an artist who admits he is uncompromising in his pursuit of musical perfection. Bolding stating, “I’m learning everyday of my life.” In many ways, Smith sees himself as a keeper of the jazz faith. “I really came up in this art form . . . I feel really strongly about it.” Sometimes it is what you leave behind that matters the most. Smith’s dedication to the GuitarMasters program and the musical fabric he weaves with his music is a legacy that will definitely last beyond a lifetime.
Visit Richard Smith on the web at www.richardsmithguitar.com .