The Warmth of Ashleigh Smith’s “Sunkissed.”

ashleighsmith_sunkissed

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.

ashleighsmith

Ms. Smith would like to sing for you if that’s okay.

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

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“20 Feet From Stardom” (It’s Just A Kiss Away)

We’ve got nothing but love for Darlene Love

You are forgiven if the names of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill and the Waters family doesn’t mean anything to you.  Unless you’re the type of person who reads the liner notes of album, you probably have never heard of any of them.

But you have heard them.  You have certainly heard of some of the people they have backed up.  Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, The Rolling Stones and just about anybody who’s ever needed somebody to add a “woo”, “doo-doo-doo” or “yeah” backing vocal.

It’s not the stars who shine in the documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, but those who support the stars who get a  chance to step into the spotlight.  For someone like Darlene Love who began singing as part of the  but didn’t start as a solo artist until she was in her 40’s, her day is long overdue.   The failure of Love to launch her solo career  is in no part due to the malevolence of Phil Spector, the super-producer of multiple hits in the ’50 sung by Love, but fronted by other women lip-synching to her vocals.

I remember buying albums by Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear, but I don’t remember any of the music and that’s where an indelible truth emerges of why the women of 20 Feet From Stardom never became stars of their own right because when Prince observed, “Everybody can’t be on top,” he was speaking the undisputed truth.

“Stay cool, stay humble, stay beautiful, and just do the work” was Clayton’s philosophy and it served her well starting out with Ray Charles to Carole King, Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” which she almost turned down until her husband urged her to take the gig.

Clayton and Jagger recall her showing up in a Los Angeles studio in silk pajamas, a mink coat, with curlers in her hair, pregnant and a determined to “blow ’em out the room.”  She did just that while singing the lyrics, “Rape, murder!/It’s just a shot away/It’s just a shot away” with such  sheer power her voice cracks at one point (the Wikipedia entry for “Gimme Shelter” throws in the unsubstantiated rumor that Clayton had a miscarriage from “straining” to hit the high notes).


Patti Austin has spent much time in studios as a background singer herself and something she told me once in an interview explains why Clayton, Lennear, Love and so many others just don’t bust into the Big Time.   Austin stressed how important it is for a singer to have great material to sing and that material fits their style and too often there aren’t enough great songs to go around and as I recall a lack of first-rate songs plagued Clayton and Lennear’s albums.

It's not just the song, but the singer too.

It’s not just the song, but the singer too.

From all outward appearances Lisa Fischer should have blown up.  She had the sultry looks.  She had a great voice.  She even won a Grammy for her song, “How Can I Stand the Pain.”  But after her debut album, So Intense, there was no follow-up record and her solo career vanished.  Fischer returned to backing up Jagger and the Stones as Clayton’s replacement on “Gimme Shelter.”

Don’t get the wrong idea about 20 Feet From Stardom.  It’s not a sad story of failure or a scathing expose of the music biz.   It’s a celebration of the women who chose to start as background vocalists and then found it difficult to transition to solo artist success.   The film concludes with Judith Hill, a young singer whose big break seemed imminent as Michael Jackson’s duet partner.  Unfortunately, the King of Pop’s untimely demise disrupted Hill’s career arc.

For me, Hill’s story is the least interesting one.  She’s got the look and the chops to make it, but in comparison to Love, Clayton or Fischer, she’s a rookie.   I know why Hill is in the movie.  She’s the youngster trying to claw her way to the top as she struggles to be taken seriously as a talent, but her resume is still a bit too skimpy for me to find her story compelling   I wish her luck, but the time director Morgan Neville devotes to Hill could have gone to somebody else who has paid more dues.

Fame was more than a shot away for Merry Clayton.

The interviews with Austin, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger are well done as are the briefer insights shared by other background vocalists including Cissy Houston,  Tata Vega, Martha Wash, and The Waters (Oren, Maxine and Julia).

20 Feet From Stardom was playing in only one theater for one week and that’s the definition of a “limited engagement.”   That’s unfortunate as the movie is never less than compelling viewing.  The stories of Love, Clayton, Fischer and the others will resonate with anyone whose talent was recognized by their peers, but went unacknowledged by the public.    Fame and fortune may have eluded these incredibly accomplished women, but now they finally get their turn in the spotlight.

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Boney and “The Beat”

“I bet you think I’m wearing a hat because my head is cold, right?”

In the crowded field of 50,000 smooth jazz saxophones, only a handful are blessed with a distinctive sound of their own and if Boney James isn’t first in his class he should be high on the list. James can play with both raw power and gentle, soulful restraint. There’s more restraint than power on The Beat, the 14th album by the New York-born saxophonist, but James has always opted for underplaying a bit than roof-raising soloing.

James’ background in soul music playing keyboards and sax for Morris Day, the Isley Brothers, and Bobby Caldwell has weighed heavily in his fondness for R’n’B and hip-hop, but The Beat drops a few hints of his love of Latin rhythms as well best evidenced in a laconic version of Stevie Wonder‘s “Don’t You Worry About A Thing” and on the boppish “Batucada (The Beat)” where James works out with his frequent collaborator, trumpeter Rick Braun. Though they won’t remind anyone of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, the James and Braun pairings tend to bring out the most purely “jazz” moments in each other.

It wouldn’t be a Boney James record without a few guest vocalists dropping by and The Beat is no exception with three; “Missing You” featuring guitarist Jarius Mozee and Abi Mancha’s nicely understated whisper, “Maker of Love” gives Raheem DeVaughn an opportunity to give praise to an attractive lady’s attributes, and Natalie “The Floacist” Stewart gives the gents equal time on “The Midas (This Is Why).”

boney james_the beat

If you aren’t already a member of Team Boney, The Beat may not be the release to get you to sign up. For the faithful who helped propel the album to the top of the charts James remains a formidable force in contemporary jazz, standing at the top and giving his competition an even steeper hill to climb.

Track Listing: Don’t You Worry About A Thing; Sunset Boulevard; Missing You; Batucada (The Beat); Maker of Love; Mari’s Song; Powerhouse; The Midas (This Is Why); Acalento (Lullaby); You Can Count On Me

Personnel: Boney James: soprano, tenor and alto saxophone, flute, keyboards; Brandon Coleman: keyboards (1, 2); Vinnie Colaiuta: drums (1, 9, 10); Lenny Castro: percussion (1-4, 6-10); Rob Bacon: guitar (2, 4, 7, 10); Dewayne “Smitty” Smith: bass (2, 10); Omari Williams: drums (2, 4, 7); Jarius Mozee: guitar, keyboards, programming (3); Abi Mancha: vocals (3); Tim Carmon: keyboards, keyboard bass (4, 6, 8); Alex Al: bass (4, 6, 7, 9); Rick Braun: trumpet (4); Raheem DeVaughn: vocals (5); Phil Davis: keyboards, programming (5); Mark Stephens: keyboards (7, 9); Natalie “The Floacist” Stewart: vocals (8)

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.com

Donny Hathaway: If Not the Best, He’s In the Conversation.

A brilliant artist waiting for his renaissance.

Have you ever woke up in a mood where you knew before the day was done you had to hear a particular singer and no substitutes would do?

I woke up today wanting to hear some Donny Hathaway.

Donny Hathaway is perhaps one of the greatest singers most people know nothing about. He ranks right up there with his contemporaries of the time, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and even Stevie Wonder, but due to his short recording career and tragic death, he has been largely ignored and undiscovered by the public.

If they’re cruising down the radio dial, maybe they’ll stumble past “The Closer I Get To You” or “Where Is the Love,” two of his duets with Roberta Flack. During the holidays they may even be strolling through one of the hipper malls and Hathaway’s classic, “This Christmas” is being piped through the sound system.   They may even know Donny’s daughter, Lalah Hathaway has enjoyed some success as a vocalist.    Unfortunately,  for far too many that’s where their knowledge of Hathaway ends.

When my father brought Everything Is Everything home and started playing it, Hathaway’s voice grabbed me first and then how brilliantly a song like “The Ghetto” took me along with him on a trip through some pretty mean streets.   “The Ghetto” should be the flip side of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”  Both capture the frustrations and to a lesser extent, the pleasures of life on the edges of polite society.

Hathaway was both blessed and cursed. Blessed with a rich and expressive voice that poured out deep, heartfelt, soulful sentiments that could deliver soul, blues or gospel. Hathaway was a gifted songwriter and pianist as well. The curse was he suffered from depression and debilitating mental illness that required hospitalization. This is in part why Hathaway’s discography is limited to three studio albums and a pair of live recordings. The best starting point for anyone curious about this immensely talented, but troubled artist is the 1990 compilation, A Donny Hathaway Collection from Atlantic Records.

I have serious problems with this compilation, but it’s a good enough starting point before diving into Hathaway’s solo recordings. I agree with All Music Guide that Everything Is Everything and Extensions of A Man are his best work. The go-to place for his duets with Roberta Flack is The Very Best of Roberta Flack,  but  after 22 years, Hathaway is long overdue for a better anthology of his music.   There is a four-disc import from France, Someday We’ll Be Free, that is pretty exhaustive, but is still missing the music from his collaboration with Quincy Jones for the movie soundtrack, Come Back, Charleston Blue.    It’s probably as good as it gets for the committed collector like me, but it’s far too much for the casual listener.    Time for someone at Atlantic to step up their game and put together a better introduction to the greatness of Donny Hathaway.

Where is the love? Right here with Roberta and Donny.

In 1979, Hathaway either fell or jumped to his death from a hotel room in New York. He was in the process of recording a new album with Flack. The two completed songs ended up on her 1980 record, Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway. He was 33 years old.   That’s a lot of potential lost far too early.

Mental illness has destroyed its share of troubled souls in music.  Hathaway and the late Phyllis Hyman, who ended her life at 45 with a drug overdose.   Talent and acclaim were not enough to pull them out of their downward spiral.   The same could be said for the late Amy Winehouse, who gave Hathaway a shout out in her breakthrough hit, “Rehab.”

They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no
Yes I’ve been black and when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
Just try to make me go to rehab I won’t go, go, go

I’d rather be at home with Ray
I ain’t got seventy days
Cos there’s nothing,there’s nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Mr Hathaway

All lists are by nature, purely subjective and subject to be rejected by the reader, but Rolling Stone ranked Hathaway at #49 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers.   I can’t argue too strenosuly when I’m glad Hathaway was remembered at all.   The rock n’ roll magazine said of Hathaway,  Donny Hathaway died in 1979, but his warm, suave soul has never been more influential. He’s been name-checked in songs by Amy Winehouse, Nas, Common and Fall Out Boy (the new “What a Catch, Donnie”), and Justin Timberlake calls “(Another Song) All Over Again,” from FutureSex/LoveSounds, “my homage to Donny Hathaway.” It’s easy to hear why Hathaway still appeals to modern-pop and neo-soul singers alike. He was equally comfortable with smooth ballads (“The Closer I Get to You”) and rolling funk (“The Ghetto”). He was a master of melisma (while never overdoing it), and his smoky voice wrapped superbly around his female duet partners, most notably Roberta Flack. No wonder Timberlake calls him “the best singer of all time.”

I won’t go as far as Justin Timberlake and declare Donny Hathaway the best singer of all time, but he’s certainly in the conversation of who the best singer is.