I have to admit: the first couple of times that I listened to Gary Brunotte’s Smile, I was not at all impressed. That is in spite of the fact that it was immediately apparent that he’s quite a fine piano player, backed by equally fine bass playing and drumming (Rick Jones and Steve Haines share the bass chair, with Bill Berg on drums). And Brunotte has great references, having played with such luminaries as Lionel Hampton, Tom Harrell and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. But the fact is that initially it was a bit difficult to take the album too seriously when I realized that it was dedicated to his cat, Dexter, and that it came complete with a 2006 calendar of cat photos. Pet references aside, my real point of contention was in the fact that the songs were so short - averaging about four minutes each - and that there didn’t seem to be much stretching or risk-taking happening during the short solos.
However, after listening to it a few more times I began to become aware of the subtleness in Brunotte’s playing and to realize that he was, at times, actually saying quite a bit in his very brief solo flights. Certainly there are some tracks on this album that work better than others, but the overall listening experience is an enjoyable one. For example, the disc opens with "Ditty For The Kitty." a slightly sad, sentimental sounding piece. The solos by Haines and Berg, short though they are, are very nice (Berg’s brush work throughout this tune is truly stellar). Brunotte’s piano playing is sure and light, confident but almost ethereal in effect. The next tune, "Merry Old Land Of 'Paws'," sounds pretty much the way you would expect it to from the title - bouncy and upbeat, full of joy and laughter. "Meow Samba" is another great tune. It’s only 3:18 long, yet both Brunotte and Berg manage to make interesting solo statements.
There are two vocal tracks (not including the one that the cat, Dexter, is heard on), which feature singer Kirsten Lambert. She has a very pleasant voice, and although her vocal version of the title track "Smile" is a bit lukewarm (the second, all-instrumental version of this tune is much more intriguing), she heats things up with an extremely sultry version of "Triste," sung in what I assume to be the original Portuguese.
Smile is not exactly cutting-edge or innovative by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a solid straight-ahead effort by an accomplished group of musicians. If you’re looking for a good disc to relax to, this could be the one.