Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
Michael-Louis Smith has come a long way from when he was doing landscaping jobs as a Saratoga County teenager. In fact, it’s fair to say the guitarist has pretty much graduated from the Greater Nippertown jazz scene: The SUNY Purchase alum has been making music in New York City for quite a while now, and he and his band First Black Nation spent last year backing Nigerian funk/soul singer Nneka on a world tour. All that said, Smith had no problem bringing his latest release First Black Nation back home so family, friends, and fans could check it out.
First Black Nation isn’t just a showcase of Smith’s razor-sharp quintet, although his partners do get to display their formidable skills as individuals and as a unit. The music was inspired – or, in Smith’s words, “affected” – by the devastating earthquake that struck the island nation of Haiti in 2010. While introducing the music (which Smith described as “one long song”), Smith talked about listening to NPR reports on the quake and its horrific aftermath, and how the only way to deal with his feelings of horror and helplessness was to express those feelings in music. “Some of the songs are kind of dark,” Smith allowed, a sheepish smile on his face. “It’s hard to play for a fun-loving audience.”
Given the vivacious music Smith and his partners – bassist Diallo House, drummer Ismail Lawal and pianist Victor “Baby Boy” Gould – laid on us for the first half-hour, it was hard to conceive of Smith playing anything that’s even remotely dark. From the opening chords of “Up in the Air,” Smith entranced us with a hollow-body sound that was as tight as it was joyous. There are great ideas in Smith’s solos, but it’s the brightness of it all that really hits you in the face. And he’s not just up there aping Pat Martino or Les Paul: The tricky “Ghosts” evokes the globe-spanning sounds of D’Gary and Lionel Loueke, and the not-quite-a-ballad “Gone” has moments that echo John Scofield. Smith’s writing and arranging are truly impeccable, but it’s his willingness to take the hollow-body vibe to places where it doesn’t usually go that makes it art.
And the rest of the band wasn’t just standing back and letting Smith plow the road. They surely give Smith superlative support, but they made plenty of their own musical waves. Gould seemed to get a slow start on “Up,” but he was right on point for the bouncing waltz “Dream,” playing chord-based solos that balanced simplicity and aggression. While Gould was technically the second soloist on the stage, Smith’s primary foil on this evening was Laval, whose ongoing counter work kept every piece percolating at just the right temperature. House’s solo brilliance didn’t manifest itself until the set turned to First Black Nation, but until then he laid down a foundation that was both solid as concrete and smooth as silk. He was also the group’s motivator, encouraging both Smith and House to take it to the next level during their respective solos on “Gone.”
First Black Nation started out inauspiciously, in that there was no hint during the lilting calypso “In the Hot Sun” that unspeakable disaster was just around the corner. Then Laval launched his solo piece “Earthquake” without warning, whisking you from seaside frolicking to Death From Below. While the piece is extremely powerful on the recording, it was an unmitigated assault in concert that actually seemed to surround you, forcing you to understand what the Haitian people must have experienced when they realized there was no escape.
In a way, it’s a good thing FBN altoist Stacy Dillard couldn’t make the gig, because his solo piece “Voices in the Rubble” is just that: A musical interpretation of the cries, screams and pleading that pierced both the air and the ears of those who were lucky enough to be outside when the walls came tumbling down. The piece is both brilliant and dreadful, with pain-filled sounds that inject the agony straight into your soul. Mind you, House’s jaw-dropping bowed prelude to his solo piece “Foul Wind” made a hell of a substitute, conjuring tortured noises that had equal parts of Bartok and Ornette Coleman until House finally threw down his bow like someone had set it on fire. There was an element of drumline to the move (Message: “Top THAT!”), but upon reflection, the images House created were so powerful, he must have had to forcefully disengage from them or risk being swallowed up.
Without Dillard to add color and contrast, pieces like the halting “Aftermath” and the furious “Mass Grave” were almost stark, displaying the emotions inside them like split-open electrical cables; the blues in “Haitian Lament” were also deeper and darker, and Smith and Gould’s work was turbo-charged by the passion inherent in the composition. On the other side of the equation, Gould’s haunting reprise of “Aftermath” was a crystalline prelude to “Lament.”
At the end, Smith stood alone at center stage playing the riff-based “Hope,” mixing D’Gary and Metheny into a soaring high-voiced flamenco framework that pleaded to Whoever’s Listening for a little help and a better day. The standing ovation that followed was well deserved, because everyone in that band worked for it. But there was one other element that can’t be ignored: The crowd was telling Smith, “Thanks for remembering your roots, and thanks for bringing this beauty back to us.”