Church bandleader exhibits strong jazz chops
The Church has long been a cornerstone of African-American cultural identity, as well as musical inspiration. Gospel is the third leg of African-American music, coming of age alongside jazz and blues in the early part of the 20th Century.
Pianist Enoch Smith Jr. has managed to keep feet in two of those worlds. As music director at Allentown Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, Smith works with the house band for each week's praise selections.
But he's also released a series of well-received jazz albums.
His latest, The Quest: Live at the APC, finds Smith fronting two different trios with two different vocalists—but finding very similar results: Praise music given a jazz arrangement, and performed in a jazz vein.
The songs are mostly originals by Smith, with the best of them able to stand alongside some of the best jazz compositions ever. It's not a wholly consistent set of tunes, though, with some that are quite average.
"Wheels Up" is a straight-ahead post-bop number with the kind of memorable hook that invites others to interpret this composition in the years to come. Smith's assertive piano lead is backed sympathetically by bassist Mimi Jones and drummer John Davis. In his aggressive use of right hand to flesh out the melody, with the left hand providing punctuation and emphasis, Smith shows some strong Basie influences albeit a far more musically verbose version!
The opening track, "Searching for God," is pure jazz despite the title. It features a spare theme, only a few bars long, but it's a fascinating listen as Smith and bassist Noah Jackson come at it from a variety of angles in both subsequent verses and in extended extrapolations. Here, Smith's playing is equally distributed to both hands, and toward the last third of the song as the intensity heats up, he's into full Art Tatum / Mike Wofford territory.
The title track opens with a spiraling cascade on piano before Smith slows it down and begins exploring the melody. Equal parts introspective and spirited, the tune is much like "Searching for God" the basic framework is fairly simple, yet has more than enough there for the band to spend four and a half minutes exploring without ever sounding bored or repeating themselves.
The vocal tracks don't work as well as the instrumentals. Both Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Emily Braden have strong voices, but don't ever quite seem to click with the band. It's competent and pleasant, but doesn't make that leap to magic that "Wheels Up" and "Searching for God" find.
Despite its uneven spots, this is a nice discovery of a commercially underknown talent clearly serving his faith community with love and talent.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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