JONATHAN SMITH
En Route
 
Jonathan Smith, an excellent straight ahead jazz guitarist, was born in San Francisco and has been part of the Portland jazz scene for the past decade.  En Route, which is named after a term used by firefighters (Smith’s earlier career), is his recording debut and an impressive effort.
 
For the project, Smith utilizes other Portland musicians including pianist-keyboardist Bo Ayars, tenor-saxophonist Sam Solano and drummer Matt Farina plus New York-based bassist Robert Stragnell. The music straddles the boundaries between hard bop and soul jazz, swinging at all tempos.
 
The repertoire and the playing in general remind one of a well organized jam session, with plenty of spontaneity yet concise solos. Smith plays in a style reminiscent of such major bop guitarists as Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and Grant Green but without sounding like anyone but himself. His solos are meaningful, relate to the melodies and the rhythms, yet have their surprising moments.
 
The set starts off with some very likable and danceable soul jazz, a blues with a bridge (“Emily’s Dance”). Blue Mitchell’s “Fungii Mama” is typically joyful, Gene Ammons “Shuffle Twist” is a medium-tempo blues and “Bb Boogaloo” lives up to its title.
 
“Feel Like Makin’ Love” serves as a soulful change of pace, “On The Trail” utilizes a catchy arrangement and Ben Webster’s “Did You Call Her Today” features the band jamming on the chord changes of “In A Mellotone.” The other selections include Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes,” the guitarist’s original minor-toned “Blues For Mandy” and “Senor Blues” which has Sam Solano’s best tenor solo of the set. The “bonus track,” “Georgia On My Mind,” finds guest vocalist Ollie McClay creating a colorful interpretation.
 
In addition to Jonathan Smith and Sam Solano, Bo Ayars proves to be a very valuable keyboardist, both as a soloist and as an accompanist. Robert Stragnell, who has a few spots, and Matt Farina are stimulating in support of the lead players.
 
This excellent effort by Jonathan Smith is easily recommended to fans of boppish and swinging jazz.
 

 

 

Portland-based guitarist Jonathan Smith spent three decades putting out fires, but he lets things burn on En Route. The retired firefighter-cum-jazz guitarist assembled a crew of musicians with whom he'd performed in live settings at various times, to record a debut album which, as Smith himself says, “delivers solid and accessible jazz.” Smith's music isn't made to push boundaries and challenge his potential listeners; it's simply straight-up, straight-ahead jazz that's easy to digest.

Blues, boogaloo, swing, calypso, and more come into play here, and the band pitches everything right down the middle. While this approach serves the music well in most cases, as Smith and company produce enjoyable head-nod-inducing, finger-snapping songs, it can be a double-edged sword. A few numbers, like Gene Ammons' “Shuffle Twist” and jazz education icon Jamey Aebersold's “Bb Boogaloo” sound a bit too generic, but the large majority of the material doesn't fall under the “overly vanilla” heading.

The pairing of Smith's funky “Emily's Dance” and trumpeter Blue Mitchell's calypso-leaning “Fungii Mama” start the album off with a feel-good vibe, but things eventually slow down for Gene McDaniels' “Feel Like Makin' Love.” Tenor saxophonist Sam Solano and Smith both sound superb on this mellow, smooth-leaning number, but they quickly move away from this style for Ferde Grofé's jazz-friendly “On The Trail.”

As the album continues, the band hits its swing stride on Ben Webster's “Did You Call Her Today?,” takes one more trip to the tropics for Charlie Parker's “My Little Suede Shoes,” and tackles Smith's own “Blues For Mandy” with class. The inclusion of a bonus track in the penultimate position in the playing order is a bit odd, as the concept is usually about an “after the album is done” treat, but the presence of a vocal number, with singer Ollie McClay joining in for “Georgia On My Mind,” brings more variety into the program. Horace Silver's oft-covered “Señor Blues” serves as the album's finale, and the understated, simmering intensity--provided by bassist Robert Stragnell's riffs and drummer Matt Farina's light touch--is perfect for this piece. With his career as a firefighter behind him and a solid debut recording under his belt, Jonathan Smith is clearly en route to becoming a better-known presence on the Portland-jazz scene and beyond.

 

Track Listing:Emily's Dance; Fungii Mama; Shuffle Twist; Bb Boogaloo; Feel Like Makin' Love; On The Trail; Did You Call Her Today?; My Little Suede Shoes; Blues For Mandy; Georgia On My Mind; Señor Blues.

Personnel: Jonathan Smith: guitar; Bo Ayars: piano, keyboards; Sam Solano: tenor saxophone (1-9, 11); Robert Stragnell: bass, electric bass; Matt Farina: drums; Ollie McClay: vocals (10). 

 

Upcoming Appearances

  • Oct 2
    Jonathan Smith Trio @ Corkscrew,  Portland
     
  • Oct 20
    Jonathan Smith Trio @ The Hoppy Brewer,  Gresham
     
  • Nov 10
    Jonathan Smith Trio @ The Hoppy Brewer,  Gresham
     
  • Dec 8
    Jonathan Smith Trio @ The Hoppy Brewer,  Gresham
     

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