Following the path of mystery and marvel that
forms the vessel Chantal’s Way:
She urged us to go,
She was not across the table, and we were powerless.
This practice had been discredited as superstitious in the West.
Stella, by starlight, interpreted natural and supernatural signs,
“Faces there will be useless,
To us few, at one with shadow and smoke, this was an alternative system
of folk knowledge.
Following the path of mystery and marvel that forms the vessel
Following the path of mystery and marvel that forms the vessel Chantal’s Way.
D. Scot Miller
If jazz history has taught us anything, it is the lesson that things change constantly even as they stay the same, and growth comes gradually. One binding truism: the piano trio format is one of those durable, evolutionary yet grounded expressive vehicles suitable for the ages.
That tradition is beautifully represented, and nudged forward at least a bit on Chantal's Way, which, is a meeting of players with an open line of communication, a three-way dialogue. On the front line, unquestionably, is Richie Beirach, still one of jazz piano’s finest and most underrated players-cerebral and lyrical, simultaneously. But the roles of drummer Jabali Billy Hart and leader-bassist Steve Smith are as integral to the whole as indefinably important elements in an abstract painting. Behind the session, literally, musically, and organizationally, is Smith, a strong player and composer whose name might not yet be familiar (except by proximity to the rock-cum-jazz drummer of the same name). Smith has been working and traveling as a musician for twenty odd years, moving from his California base to various global points, including Manhattan, Montreal, and now San Francisco. Smith belongs to that sizable population of bold, dedicated jazz musicians not yet known to the jazz cognoscenti, but who have faithfully worked in various corners of music, while faithfully tending the torch of jazz expression. The maturation process is evident on his maiden voyage as a leader, and, with Beirach and Hart, he keeps some notable company.
Smith’s travels took him to Hawaii and Tahiti, and it was there that he wrote the originals on the session, including “Blue Cave,” inspired by an underwater cave in Kauii, and Kilauea,” after the volcano on the island of Hawaii. This is not to say, however, that the tunes have a tropical, breezy air. His compositions tend to combine melancholy and energy in ways that connect empathetically with the music of such players as, well, Beirach. As a writer, Smith says, “I haven’t noticed a strong signature yet, but I notice that a common thread in all my tunes is that kind of yearning melody. The whole ECM sound really influenced me in the late 70s and early ’80s.” Smith’s own learning curve as a jazz bassist began with a revelation in high school. “Actually, I started with Scott Lafaro. Somebody gave me a Bill Evans record, and at first, I put it on and thought it sounded like background music. I was in high school at the time. Then I listened closer and thought ‘wow, what is the bass player doing?’ I had been playing electric bass in garage bands. I went to high school and borrowed an acoustic bass. I was lucky enough to see Bill Evans with Marc Johnson at a club called Maiden Voyage. That did it for me. I saw Marc playing and said ‘that’s what I want to do.’
Inspired by the free-ranging voices of the Evans-linked bassists, Smith got an early taste of the expressive possibilities as a bassist within a close format-again, the piano trio context. But he soon felt the necessity of getting a foundation in a more straightforward mode of playing. Smith says, “I realized that, in order to be a working bass player, you have to be able to play like Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, so I got deeply into those guys, learning how to lay the time down, swinging. When I moved to New York, that was really important, to have great time and form and to be able to swing. So I went backwards, starting out more progressive and free, and getting back to the basics.”
Through the process of that study, Smith was honing a personal voice, which comes out on "Chantal's Way", his long-planned-for debut. While living in Montreal, he decided to go into the studio, as he had done before, to realize some of his compositions and just to engage in the self-revealing process of recording. Though initially planning to record with Montreal players, he decided to up the ante and contact Beirach, one of his favorite musicians. That connection having been made, Hart was up for the session. Smith drove down from Montreal to prepare the music with Beirach, in his studio in lower Manhattan, and then the trio rehearsed twice, spent two nights in the studio, and, voila, "Chantal's Way" was manifested. Beirach’s input and musical stamp on the record goes deep, in his reworking of Smith’s tune, “Chantal’s Way.” As a sort of roots-tracing gesture, Smith brought out a slightly reworked version of Beirach’s pensive gem of a tune, “Elm,” the title track to the Beirach album for ECM which endeared him to Smith when the bassist was just a fledgling player. “That was a great honor to be able to put that on my album.”
The trio also gives fleshy form to three of Beirach’s signature reharmonizations of the standards, “Stella by Starlight,” “All the Things You Are,” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” which emerges as a tough-skinned modal hard bop outing. Those reharmonizations were part of the allure Smith felt towards playing with Beirach in the first place, “I’ve heard some reharmonizations that are kind of safe,” Smith comments, “but he takes a lot of chances. I think you have to. These melodies are so strong, and we’ve heard them so many times, you have to put something out under them to make them stand out.”
The album closes, poetically, with a flowing version of John Coltrane’s “Expression,” which Smith explains was “an afterthought that we recorded unrehearsed.” Out of such sudden impulses comes the stuff of art. For his part, Smith takes a number of solos on the recording, but in general opted not to step out in any extroverted way as a leader. “I didn’t feel, just because it’s my CD, that I wanted to take long bass solos or do some sort of long intro with the bow. I really was just concerned with trying to blend, because that’s what I do as a bass player, blend into the band. I didn’t really care if it didn’t sound as if I was the leader on it. I just wanted to make music. I wanted to blend with those guys. “I’ve always preferred bands where everyone is equal. But I don’t like the opposite, either, where the bass is strictly in the background. I like it where the musicians are equal and are having a conversation.”
Piano trio playing has always been an important part of Smith’s musical life, whatever other professional or personally-motivated musical activities were in front of him. “I think it’s because I was introduced to the Bill Evans sides with Scott Lafaro. I listened to those records so much. Then I had the opportunity to play with some great piano players in different cities. It seemed, whenever I wanted to record my music, I would always hire a pianoplayer and a drummer. I usually wouldn’t hire a horn player, which is weird, because I think some of the melodies on my tunes would actually work nicely with horn. “On the other hand, once you add a horn player, a lot of times, the bass has to take on a stricter role. It seems more tempting to fall into that walking thing. With a piano trio, it’s more interactive, like a conversation between three players.”
This recording could catapult Smith into a broader sphere in the
jazz scene, but he has other goals in mind. “What I would really like to
do is to make another record. I’ve always been interested in recording.
It’s great that the history of jazz is recorded, because that’s mainly how
I’ve learned, by listening to recordings-and also being able to see these
musicians live.” Smith’s own steady musical path now includes a creative
document to be proud of.