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Joel LaRue Smith: The Motorman's Son

Dan Bilawsky By

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The impact that parents can have on their children is absolutely incalculable. They're responsible for rearing and guiding, instilling and imprinting a series of attitudes and virtues on what essentially amounts to a human blank slate. Their acts inspire the actions and beliefs that come to largely define their progeny. That's an idea that pianist Joel LaRue Smith clearly understands and embraces with The Motorman's Son.

Smith's parents left New Orleans in the '40s, joining The Great Migration that would see millions of African Americans moving north in search of a better life. They settled in New York City where Smith's father became a subway motorman, shepherding the melting pot population to and fro through a diverse range of locales. The bravery attached to that northward move, his father's job and standing, and the motorman's nature of traveling between different realms all directly inspire Smith's work here.

The Motorman's Son, at its core, is an exploration of the Afro-Latin diaspora. It finds Smith mixing the music and rhythms of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic into a savory Latin jazz dish. The originals, making up the bulk of the program, present with rhythmic zest, twists in time, tight riffs, bold colors, and variable intensity; the choice in covers—an in-the-correct-tradition take on Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" enlivened by some wonderfully raunchy trombone work and an arrangement of Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" that wouldn't have felt out of place on Conrad Herwig's The Latin Side Of Wayne Shorter (Half Note, 2008)—prove equally inspired and completely in line with the vision for this project.

"The Seeds" gets the ball rolling and gives a good first look at how Smith operates. It opens in a bright and powerful four, shifts to seven, and returns to Latin straight time for a piano solo and a saxophone stand before ceding the floor to drummer Tiago Michelin and percussionist Wilson "Chembo" Corniel for a two-man rumble that takes place atop bassist Flavio Lira's grounded line(s). Several of the pieces that follow rely on a similar architectural strategy, wherein Smith builds multi-sectional works that marry different grooves, tempos, rhythms, and dialects. The title track, for example, enters with a caffeinated Mozambique-esque mindset, moves into odd-metered territory, downshifts into a sauntering Cuban-inspired area, and cycles back around for further travels. You can hear the clear links between those two songs, but the differences are just as striking. They're cut from the same cloth, but Smith's tailoring of that cloth makes each piece unique.

Six of these seven Smith originals (and both covers) operate in a similar zone, leaving "The Promise" to exist as a work of art that's a work apart. It's a flowing, contemplative piano piece that's both welcome and out of place. On one hand its inclusion makes complete sense, as it broadens the picture, serves as a change of pace, and shines a light on Smith's meditative side; on the other hand, it doesn't really seem like the right company for what surrounds it. But why waste words debating or carping about such matters? It's a moving performance that Smith clearly felt was right for this program, so that warrants its inclusion.

With The Motorman's Son, Smith honors and upholds the legacy of his father while extending on it with his own voice. It's a strong showing and the kind of artistic statement that would make a parent proud.

Track Listing: The Seed; Manteca; Reverence; The Motorman's Son; Raics; La Ruta Alterna; The Promise; Nefertiti; Sin Miedo.

Personnel: Joel LaRue Smith: piano; Charles Langford: alto saxophone; Carlos Averhoff, Jr.: tenor saxophone; Jeff Galindo: trmbone; TakahideWatanabe: trombone; Flavio Lira: bass; Tiago Michelin: drums; Wilson "Chembo" Corniel: tumbadoras.

Title: The Motorman's Son | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Self Produced

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