Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
Although Michael-Louis Smith has officially graduated from the Greater Nippertown jazz scene, the talented guitarist’s enduring links to the Capital Region – and to his birthplace of Schenectady, in particular – are strong enough to grandfather him into A Place for Jazz’s annual local-artist show. Besides, between his springtime drop party at The Linda and the trio he brought to the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival’s Downtown BID Competition, Smith has definitely been around enough this year to re-acquaint him with the Local 518 scene. For this show, though, we got to experience the full MLS band, and that experience definitely left a mark.
And a mark would have to be made, as the closing show on APFJ’s always-too-short calendar is really the last time until April when area jazz fans will consider attending a show without asking, “How far is it? How cold is it? Is it going to snow?” The slight chill in the air was another reminder that climate change isn’t keeping winter away. But when Smith started his in-the-clear opening riff to “Up in the Air” and his cohorts literally slid into the tasty groove that pushes the tune, the approaching season went right down the memory hole – and a lid was put firmly on that hole when the tune turned on a dime and hit us with a big dose of sharp, blistering bop.
This group’s sound (both individually and collectively) is rooted in jazz tradition: Smith plays hollow-body guitar with minimal effects, Victor Gould’s crisp piano lines evoke early acoustic Herbie Hancock, and it’s not hard to hear Sonny Rollins in saxman Stacey Dillard’s massive attack. But their overall sound comes at you like a tailing curveball, bending your mental knees as the ball blows right by you and smacks into the catcher’s glove. Smith’s lines are high and taut, with none of the soft resonance associated with the hollow-body, and Dillard’s sensational forays outside the box take Rollins’ warm sound and add a level of complexity that is thoroughly modern and undeniably brilliant.
Three of the first four tunes in the opening set – “Up,” the tightly waltzing “Dream” and the just-on-the-edge “Ghosts” – come from the Smith’s 2010 release Portrait of MLS, which features another local hero (pianist Theo Hill) and heavy hitters like veteran bassist Gregg August and monster drummer Rudy Royston. But even though the performances on that disc were nothing but great, every piece on this two-set night generated the kind of light and heat that only comes from a single unit that’s worked as a team for months and years. That unshakable chemistry was one of the things that kept the more conventional fans in their seats as Smith and his partners worked to expand APFJ’s traditional paradigm.
This is a five-man band where every member is an accomplished soloist. In many ways, volcanic drummer Ismail Laval did nothing BUT solo, as he was constantly countering and filling over Smith and Dillard. By rights, that meant bassist Diallo House had to keep things on the straight and narrow; he got the “straight” part right, but you can forget about “narrow.” House (who Smith first met in Schenectady) keeps the busiest, most muscular foundation on the menu, launching three notes where one usually covers it. His opening moment in the clear on “Groove” showed a sensational sense of lyric and story, and his bowing on “A Foul Wind” contained a marvelous fury, but the innovation House brings to this group’s floor is a sight to see.
“A Foul Wind” comes from First Black Nation, the disc Smith dropped at The Linda back in the spring. A “song cycle” inspired by the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, Smith used the second set to play the entire work. A lot of Nation is serious heavy lifting, and a far cry from the civilized West Coast sounds Jeff Hamilton brought to APFJ earlier in the year: Laval literally simulated an earthquake before “In the Hot Sun” (a distant cousin to Rollins’ signature piece “St. Thomas”) had stopped ringing in our ears; Dillard’s shrieks and cries during his in-the-clear “Voices in the Rubble” were borderline horrifying when poured through the Whisperdome’s legendary acoustics; and Gould’s tender performance on “Aftermath Postlude” transmitted the fear and trembling of quake survivors who’d hoped the worst was over. Again, the performances kept the crowd completely mesmerized through this serially harrowing music as Smith’s heartfelt inspiration opened like a flower in ways we only glimpsed at WAMC-FM’s downtown performance space.
I may bust on A Place For Jazz for sticking too close to the conservative side of the genre, but Tim Coakley and his merry band always pull one unconventional rabbit out of the hat, giving the series’ followers a glimpse of how the music is both moving and evolving. On this evening, that movement came from a son of Schenectady who’s found four kindred spirits that use their collective talents to keep jazz’s future shining and bright. Smith gave us a glimpse of that future with the kicking encore “Blues #7,” which will appears on the group’s upcoming recording.
And that’s how you end a concert series – with a bang, not a whimper. APFJ, you did it again!