At the core of everything that guitarist/composer Perry Smith does is the desire to create personal and musical connections with the artistic community. That's true of the community he's built around his inclusive weekly series in Brooklyn, "The Nest Session;" it's behind his decision to use social media as a means of reaching out, not cutting off. And it lies at the very heart of his third album as a leader, New Angel -- both in the close relationships he shares with his bandmates and in his desire to make the sometimes heady concepts of modern jazz something accessible and deeply personal.
New Angel (due out March 2 via Smith's own Smith Tone Records imprint) marks the debut of the gifted guitarist's stellar new quintet, which features saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Matt Aronoff and drummer Allan Mednard. While they've all played together in a variety of contexts, Smith's decision to bring together this particular group stems directly from their shared experiences at Nest Sessions jams, which he and Aronoff have co-led for more than three years.
"It's been a really wonderful experience," Smith says. "I've been able to play with so many incredible musicians each and every week, so I've formed a lot of strong musical relationships. Beyond my own quintet, though, it's really about bringing the community together and trying to create a diverse and inclusive space for every jazz artist in the city to feel welcome."
The creative and the activist stem from the same instincts in Smith's work. Though he insists that he didn't set out to make a "social justice" record per se, his response to our current divisive political moment comes through in meditative solo "vignettes" interspersed throughout the album. Titles like "Lullaby for Freedom" and "Hope for Peace" tell the (ultimately optimistic) story.
"I wanted a few of the tracks to represent the message that I wanted to get across," Smith explains. "One of the challenges you face as an artist is to figure out how you can make a difference with your art -- especially in jazz, which can be so theoretical and complex. How you can go beyond that to create work that has a deeper, greater meaning is something that I've been passionate about for a long time."
Translating similar instincts from the social to the musical lies behind Smith's decision to assemble his quintet. Following his two earlier quartet recordings, Stars and Cars (2009) and Street Sense (2013), he became drawn to composing for more voices, so the versatility offered by the combination of a guitar, piano and saxophone frontline became especially compelling. He found the specific possibilities offered by weaving his own voice with those of Irabagon and Zaleski, paired with the rhythmic imaginations of Aronoff and Mednard, especially thrilling. The album was co-produced by Sam Minaie, who played bass on both of Smith's previous releases and provided the unique insight of a sharp listener with a deep knowledge of Smith and his music.
In addition, the entire session was filmed and will be released as a series of videos through Smith's social media outlets. Seeing the shift in the way that listeners take in music, the guitarist wanted to be sure his music reached the widest possible audience in the most easily accessible form. While the full album will be available in more traditional forms, he hopes these videos will make a more immediate connection.
The band's thrilling chemistry is vividly apparent from the opening moments of "Rise and Fall," whose title makes the tune's shifting moods and tempos sound deceptively simple. The gentle, memorable melody is prime evidence of Smith's gift for crafting compositions that embrace the listener while providing plenty of spark for improvisation.
"Deep Water" is a much knottier outing; its title, in fact, reflects the challenge that confronts the quintet in its harmonic complexity and sharp, treacherous angles. "Playing this song can feel like, 'We're in deep water right now,'" Smith admits. "That's always been a tradition in jazz: the idea that you're pushing yourself to try to explore something new while still trying to create something musical."
If the title track seems to hang in the air like an unanswered question, that may be due to the fact that it's the earliest piece on the album, one that Smith started working on as he turned 30, met the woman who would become his wife, and found himself facing many of the larger "what ifs" in life. "New Angel" may be a reference to his now-wife, but more broadly it's a reference to a spirit of freshness and change.
The spikiness of "Monk's World" immediately evokes the keen-edged genius and eyebrow-arched joy of the great Thelonious Monk. Smith wrote the piece on the chord changes of Monk's classic "Epistrophy" as a way of paying homage to the legendary pianist's outsized influence. "In my experience on the jazz scene in New York," Smith says, "musicians are always more excited about playing Monk's tunes than anybody else's -- more than even Coltrane or Wayne Shorter or Herbie. I think it has to do with the playful nature of his songs and the cool, creative melodies that he wrote, which open a lot of freedom in the landscape."
Presaged by Smith's introspective, soulful "Notes for Nostalgia," "The Old Road" is a wistful rumination on the composer's early days growing up in the California Bay Area. A similarly reflective spirit pervades "Lucid Night," where the incisive melody suggests a certain brooding clarity.
"Graceful Spirit" returns the album to the theme of connection and community. It was specifically inspired by the eloquence and example of former President Barack Obama, but more generally muses on the idea of grace and empathy as powerful and necessary qualities in a leader -- whether of the free world or of a scintillating and passionate jazz quintet.
Guitarist Perry Smith combines the tradition of jazz with broad influences from R&B, rock and folk to create his indelible signature style. Originally from California, Smith is now based in Brooklyn where he leads his own groups and is a sideman for several jazz and contemporary artists. He is also a founding member of the critically acclaimed New West Guitar Group, which has been performing internationally for 10 years and has been recognized as one of the premier guitar ensembles in the country. Smith received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Flora L. Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and completed his Masters in Music at New York University, studying with the great John Scofield. His extensive performance resume includes notable venues and festivals such as the Blue Note Jazz Club, The Village Vanguard, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Java Jazz Festival in Indonesia, and the Philippine International Jazz Festival. Smith hosts a weekly series in Brooklyn called "The Nest Session", performing with a different group of NYC's finest jazz musicians every Wednesday, generously supported by a grant from KeyedUp.org in conjunction with the Jazz Foundation of America.