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).