Summer 2016 was hot, sticky and not a lot of fun. Many big name Hollywood blockbusters tanked. The presidential election has been a long slog. Television ratings for the Summer Olympics were off and every time you turned on the TV there were plenty of reasons to turn it back off.
Then along came Ashleigh Smith to save the summer with Sunkissed as welcome as coming across brightly sparkling gem in the sand. Blessed with maturity beyond her years, Smith is a singer more than a stylist who caresses and interprets a song than hammer the listener with hey-look-at-me vocal gymnastics.
The 27-year-old Dallas-based singer/songwriter effortlessly blends soul, jazz and pop on her debut album. Smith’s “Best Friends” is radio-friendly and serves as a nice introduction to what she brings to the party. There’s a breezy bossa nova groove to the tune as Smith references her fondness for Stevie Wonder courtesy of Kevin Wyatt’s quality harmonica work.
Smith’s skill set includes songwriting as she co-wrote five of the album’s 10 compositions. The other half includes covers of The Beatles “Blackbird’ and Hall & Oates’ 1975 hit, “Sara Smile” and they work best as showpieces for Smith’s comfort with lighter fare without really moving the needle as game-changing interpretations.
What does work better for Smith are her own songs like “The World Is Calling,” a commentary on contemporary social issues which avoids becoming preachy, the optimistic “Sunkissed” and the sparkling “Into the Blue” which is enhanced in no small part by the four-piece horn section arranged by trumpeter Jarriel Carter. The whole album is brimming with right choices by Smith and producers Chris Dunn and Nigel Rivers and avoids any glaring missteps, but “Into the Blue” is a track that demands repeat listening.
In 2014, Smith won the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition after placing second two years later. She added vocal backup for pop artist Chrisette Michele and covers one of her compositions, “Love Is You” but Smith is equally comfortable with standards as she closes out with Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory stripped down to only her multi-tracked vocals and it is a pure delight.
Read the liner notes and the names of the other musicians likely aren’t familiar ones. That is not an accident. Smith wanted to avoid “big name” musicians and went with other players she worked with from a jazz camp at the University of North Texas. When a new artist enters the studio the temptation is there to wrap them in a cocoon of hand-picked professional musicians and production. Thankfully, Sunkissed does not succumb to playing it safe and Smith never gets lost in studio gimmicks.
In 2014, one my favorite AAJ critics (me!) wrote, “For jazz not only to thrive, but survive, it must begin to create its own superstars who can deliver a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the flagging art form, but have skills in social media and marketing, creating a global brand, and finding new forms beyond record sales, radio play and live gigs in fewer clubs and concert halls to reach the new breed of jazz fans.”
Ashleigh Smith announces with Sunkissed the next generation of jazz artists is here for the previous generation to pass the baton on to capable hands. She’s not the next Sarah Vaughan. She’s the first Ashleigh Smith.
Track Listing: Best Friends; Sara Smile; The World Is Calling; Love Is You; Blackbird; Sunkissed; Into the Blue; Brokenhearted Girl; Beautiful and True; Pure Imagination
Personnel: Ashleigh Smith: vocals; Shelton Summers: piano, Fender Rhodes; Sergio Pamies: piano (9); Joel Cross: guitar; Mark Lettieri: electric guitar (3, 9); Justin Schenk: electric guitar (3, 9); Nigel Rivers: electric bass; Cedric Moore: drums (1, 5); Marcus Jones: drums (2, 4); Matt Young: drums (9); Cleon Edwards: drums; Greg Beck: percussion (1); AJ Flores: percussion: (2-4, 6, 7); Kevin Wyatt: harmonica (1); Jarriel Carter: trumpet (1,7); Jason Davis: saxophone (1, 7); Gaika James: trombone (1, 7); Antone Amalbert: trombone (1, 7); Veronica Gan: 1st violin (4, 9); Emily Aquin: 2nd violin (4, 9); Emily Williams: viola (1, 7); Craig Leffer: cello (1, 7); Sergio Pamies: string arrangement; Jarriel Carter: horn arrangement
Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Concord Records
A different version of this review originally appeared in All About Jazz