Take Five with Anthony Smith

Anthony Smith BY

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About Anthony Smith:
Anthony Smith has been playing piano and vibraphone, as well as various keyboards, professionally for twenty-five years. He has released numerous recordings, worked in a variety of genres, and toured extensively as both a leader and a sideman, with many different projects. His last jazz vibraphone recording, Connections, made it to the top 20 of the national jazz radio charts. His new recording, Play It Forward, Volume One and Two, features a stellar lineup of New York musicians, performing all-original compositions written by Smith. In addition to a busy performing schedule, Smith holds a Masters degree in jazz performance, and is a sought after teacher and clinician.

I was initially influenced by the combination of my dad's jazz records, which included everyone from Art Tatum to Miles Davis and Clare Fischer, and also popular R&B groups of the late eighties. Acts like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and DeBarge bridged the harmonic gap between pop and jazz for me, and led me to start writing my own songs. By the time I was eighteen, I was hooked on jazz piano, and studied with some of the Bay Area's finest pianists. I got my hands on every jazz piano record I could, and transcribed solos by many of the masters, from Herbie Hancock to Kenny Barron, Keith Jarrett to Mulgrew Miller. I started doing jazz and pop gigs by the time I was out of high school.

Your sound and approach to music?
I started out on piano, and attempted to play classical music in the early years... but quickly realized I was much more inspired to be creative than to learn music note-for-note. I hung in there with classical music until the second year of my college music program, when I decided to focus on jazz performance and composition. I remember being intensely focused during that period. I was consumed by the desire to develop my abilities to their fullest, and I was very dedicated. I didn't party (much), I didn't get distracted. I worked my ass off, and it paid off. I got busy playing professionally as a jazz pianist in Southern California before I finished college. (The vibraphone came along a bit later for me)

Jazz was the style of music that inspired me to pursue being a professional musician. I've worked in a number of genres over the years, but I always return to my jazz roots, and I always gravitate towards projects that involve creativity and individuality.

My approach to being a bandleader and composer is to put together musicians who complement each other personally and artistically, and who develop a collective sense of chemistry. I prefer organic groups to those that are manufactured or pre-fabricated—and rather than dictate what various players should be doing musically, I believe the best results come from simply bringing together the best combination of artists possible, trusting them, and giving them the freedom to do what they do. After being in music for twenty-five years, I feel I know a thing or two about artists, and I've found that talented individuals produce the best results when they are afforded the creative latitude to work and create in their own, personal way.

Teaching Approach:
My philosophy of teaching music is based first on nurturing creativity and the ability (and courage) to improvise... to make a personal artistic statement. I am more stimulated by a student's passion and sense of adventure than by their inherent talents. I enjoy passing along information, and always find myself learning, and sometimes re-learning, through the process of teaching. I also believe there are a number of ways to learn music, and everyone has their own process for absorbing information. Thus it's important to be flexible as an educator. I'm more excited by a student tapping into their creativity and discovering their own gifts as an improviser or composer, than by technical mastery and flawless execution.

Your Dream Band:
John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Freddie Hubbard: trumpet; Art Farmer: trumpet; Kenny Garrett: alto saxophone; Fred Hersch: piano; Bobby Hutcherson: vibraphone; Larry Young: organ; Jaco Pastorius: bass; Elvin Jones: drums.

Your best or worst experience?
A couple years ago, I wrote a book about all my colorful experiences in music over the years ("The Lizard Stays in the Cage"). Here are a couple funny gig stories from the early days:

Story #1

"One night I was doing a wedding reception with local bandleader at The Prado, in a nice area of Balboa Park. I was just sitting there in my tuxedo, playing my keyboard and minding my own business. The next thing I knew, an old man was onstage, right in my face. "Stand up!" he screamed. I stood to address him, fearing there might be an emergency situation in the crowd. Uncle Marvin just keeled over! Call 9-1-1!

"What can I do for you?" I asked. He grabbed my tux jacket and started shaking me. Yes, actually shaking me.

"It's too loud! You turn that **** down! Turn it down!"

I kept my cool and said, "Please take your hands off me." He continued to buttonhole me while screaming, "I'm paying for this whole goddamn wedding! You turn it down now!"

"Take your hands off me," I repeated. "I won't ask again." He gathered his wits and backed off. The client sensed he was in danger of receiving a right cross to the jaw!

"I'll tell the bandleader you want the volume down," I added. He nodded and walked away. During the break, the leader of the band walked over to me and said, "You sure handled that well. I would have kicked the guy in the ****." Corporate Gig Rule #1 specifies: never, ever kick the client in the ****.

Story #2

"When I showed up the first night, there was a big box of white tuxedos, and the leader told me to "Grab a monkey suit, man." The gig consisted of reading through arrangements out of a massive songbook, while elderly couples cut the rug. There were good players in the band, but I found myself wondering, as the leader loudly barked the numbers of the charts he wanted us to pull from his compendium of corny classics, what am I doing here?

One night on this particular job, there was an elaborate tray of finger food desserts laid out near the bandstand. An older trumpet player and I stood nearby on the break, salivating. We checked to make sure the coast was clear, and then we made our move. As we stood there devouring cream-filled confections, we were accosted by a walkie talkie-wielding chick with a Sheraton nametag pinned to her pantsuit, who came out of nowhere. "What do you think you're doing?!" she snapped. "Those are not for you! They're for the client!" The veteran player and I stood there in our cheap, white monkey suits, nothing to say for ourselves. Chocolate dripped from our guilty fingers as she ripped us a new one for shoplifting a couple miniature eclairs. We were reduced to clowns, just like the Bridges Brothers in The Fabulous Baker Boys.

It was at that very moment that I had an epiphany: I was never going to be happy with my life by making a living this way. I had a choice. I could play as many weddings, bar mitzvahs and private parties as humanly possible... if this was my choice, I'd never know the highs of playing for an audience who paid to hear me perform my own music. I'd never distinguish myself as a creative artist in the world. The alternative would be to veer off the safe path and pursue the frontier of original music. This would be much more of a crapshoot. There would be no guarantees, and I might very well wind up broke in the end."

(Excerpts from The Lizard Stays in the Cage: Music, Art, Sex, Screenplays, Booze and Basketball, by Anthony Smith)

Favorite venue/place you've played?
Back in my hard-touring days, I used to love playing The Fox Theater in Boulder, Colorado. Also, the Mangy Moose in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Zephyr in Salt Lake City, the Good Foot in Portland, Oregon, and in the really early days I loved the Belly Up in Solana Beach, California... now that I think about it, there are so many great venues to play, just in the U.S. alone! In more recent years I enjoyed playing the Blue Note here in NYC, with saxophonist Karl Denson. We did that a few different times. Outside the U.S., I did a great tour of Taiwan in my early twenties, and because it was a State-sponsored tour/university exchange, we were treated like royalty.

Favorite recording in your discography?
As a jazz artist, I'm most proud of my latest recording, Play It Forward, Volume One and Two, because they consist of all original music I've written since relocating to New York City within the past couple years. Also, I played only vibraphone on the entire project (no piano), and love the sonic blend of vibraphone and guitar, minus piano. I like the challenge of using the vibraphone in harmonically satisfying and compelling way, so the listener doesn't miss the piano. Also, all the tracks were first or second takes, with minimal overdubbing. That's the way jazz records should be made... most of the best ones historically have been done that way. The spirit and spontaneity of the music is more important than the precision of every instrument.

Did you know?
I love the game of tennis as much as I love music. It's harder to play here in New York than it was on the West Coast, but at least now I have the pleasure to attend the U.S. Open every year!

The first jazz album I bought was:
My Favorite Things by John Coltrane. Coltrane remains one of my musical heroes, and in my opinion one of the absolutely greatest and most influential figures in jazz and also Twentieth Century music.

Desert island picks?
Nothing Like the Sun (Sting)
Total Eclipse (Bobby Hutcherson)
Cruisin' the Bird (Bobby Hutcherson)
Definition of a Band (Mint Condition)
Horizons (Fred Hersch)

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
I love the music, just like I always have... but like most of my peers, I have pretty mixed feelings about the business. I believe wholeheartedly in musicians, in artists, in jazz, and also in my own passion, creative energy, and resolve to continue to do this. I also look around me and see more and more stellar young musicians than ever before. Information is abundantly available now, and many young jazz players these days have absorbed a hundred years of language and tradition by the time they're in their mid-twenties. All that is exciting. What's less exciting is the realities of doing this for a living, or attempting to make a successful business out of being an artist in today's world. Is the DIY model really sustainable for artists in the long run? I'm not convinced, but I'm playing along for the time being. It's really a mostly uphill struggle for most of us out there, and unfortunately I don't see that changing much in the near future. But I'm not a pessimist in general, and I'm not at all bitter about the situation. It's an ongoing choice to be an artist, and each of us has to weigh the pros and cons of pursuing such an unconventional career path. In the ultimate analysis, it's a real privilege to get to create music, and to be able to share it with other human beings. It's a gift, and I think it's important to never lose sight of this fact.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?
I talk with fellow musicians about this all the time. My belief is that an artist needs to create something, or at least attach him or herself to something that is bigger than himself. Bigger than his or her own personal projects and ambitions. What, exactly? It depends on who you are, and where your personal talents and abilities lie... but if you are only interested in promoting your own work and career as an artist, I think you're in for a long, lonely slog in today's scene. My vehicle to do this, to create something larger than myself, is primarily through writing, at the moment—not music writing but literary writing. I am in the process of publishing, through Leigh Howard Stevens and Keyboard Percussion Publications, a book called "Masters of the Vibes," a series of in-depth conversations with many of the world's great, living jazz vibraphonists. It hasn't been done yet, and the instrument needs a boost, in terms of popularity and public awareness. There are so many wonderful artists who play the vibes, and a handful of them are also iconic figures in the history of jazz, such as Terry Gibbs, Gary Burton and Mike Mainieri. I care deeply about the vibraphone, and the great individuals who have pushed the instrument forward over the years—and this is my way of supporting the international mallet player community, while celebrating the lives and careers of some brilliant jazz artists. Also, the book will hopefully inspire more young people to start playing the vibraphone. (Masters of the Vibes is set for an early 2016 release).

What is in the near future?
I'm still fairly new to the NYC jazz scene, so I hope to continue making new connections and just get busier playing and recording with great players. My new quintet double recording, Play It Forward, with Syberen van Munster (guitar), Petros Klampanis (bass), Kenny Pexton (saxophone), and Mark Ferber (drums) is an important milestone for me... we just did a successful release concert at Cornelia St. Cafe, and I hope to build on that momentum looking forward to 2016. Our next show will be at Ibeam in Brooklyn on November 14th.

What is your greatest fear when you perform?
That the audience isn't going to like what I'm doing, and isn't going to respond with any positive energy. Also, the fear that as an improviser, I suddenly won't have anything to play... that I'll find myself completely lacking ideas. Luckily, it never happens, once I'm engaged in the process of playing and interacting with other musicians.

What song at your funeral?
My dad once told me he'd like to have the standard "We'll Be Together Again" played at his funeral, and I think I'd like the same at my own. It's such a beautiful song, and the lyrics are perfection. Such a beautiful sentiment, regardless of one's spiritual beliefs.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I'd be a...
Full-time writer of some sort. I've written screenplays, short stories, a memoir, and a lot of articles! I love to write, and it is a very different creative process than live music performance.

If someone were to come along and make an evolutionary quantum leap on the vibraphone in jazz, what would that look and sound like?
This was one of my favorite questions to ask the many heavyweight vibraphonists I chatted with for Masters of the Vibes, and the answers were all very interesting. The last couple artists who made a huge impact on the vibraphone were Gary Burton and Bobby Hutcherson, quite a few years ago. Like Joe Locke, one of the featured vibraphonists in Masters of the Vibes, I believe the next quantum leap on the instrument will come from someone who is able to synthesize the technical and harmonic, pianistic four-mallet genius of Gary Burton with the dazzling, post-bop linear innovations of Bobby Hutcherson... and put all that together in a way that is refreshing and new. That person will also have a sense of compositional/conceptual genius to match their technical genius on the instrument. Also, that remarkable individual will understand and be able to channel the giant musical spirit of Milt Jackson, another legendary vibraphonist who possessed an unparalleled ability to infuse his work with an authentic sense of the blues. It's a tall order, but like Joe, Steve Nelson and a number of the other artists in the (forthcoming) book, I believe it's going to happen in the future... hopefully the not-too-distant future!

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