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.