Long-time Jazz Advocate Takes Center Stage
Henri Smith is a stand-up guy. He’s been on the New Orleans scene for years and years, but only started singing professionally in 1999. He’s good, which helps, but he’s also got a one-of-a-kind support group. On his debut record New Orleans Friends and Flavours, Smith joins the rank of classy artists who credit sidemen on the front cover. No wonder, it reads like a who’s who list of New Orleans mega-musicians.
The party starts with "Big Chief" in an authentic Mardi Gras style. We’re talking Professor Longhair, after all. It then veers into solos ranging from bebop to Latin and back to carnival. In another case of surprising symmetry, Wendell Brunious’ flugelhorn passages on Hoagy Carmichael’s "New Orleans" and Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s "Walk on By" are equally reminiscent of the Big Easy and the Big Apple. His round, articulate, but dark and mysterious timbre is reminiscent of Miles’ work with Gil Evans. This stuff is about as sophisticated and cooled-off as New Orleans music ever gets. There are no scorching hot jazz numbers here, but it’s always pretty steamy down in the delta.
Henri Smith may be just starting out as a jazz singer, but his longtime presence as a radio DJ, festival emcee and all-around cool hang must account for something. He certainly coaxed classic performances from his all-star accompanists. Their versions of Nat Adderly’s "Work Song" and Nat Simpkins’ "Spanish Rice and Beans" are highlights. The latter certainly benefits from Jason Marsalis and Bill Summers’ participation in Los Hombres Calientes.
Though they have not yet achieved major name recognition, Kermit Ruffins’ bassist Kevin Morris and drummer Jerry Anderson are true rhythm heavies. They underpin the entire affair with a quiet confidence and serious swing. Of course, credit for that must be shared with pianist Thadeus Richard. After recently "discovering" several other Richard performances (Preservation Hall Hot Four, Jeremy Davenport’s quartet,) it’s clear he is an unsung statesman of jazz. In addition to abundant solos, New Orleans Friends and Flavours features several rich horn arrangements supplied by Nat Simpkins and Donald Harrison. Make sure you listen all the way to the end: "Them There Eyes" is a ballsy vocal/bass duet, complete with a mind-blowing slap solo.
Smith still hosts his jazz program on WWOZ, but has been steadily booked as a musician at home and overseas ever since Ruffins tapped him at the 1999 New Orleans Jazzfest. Just imagine your debut performance earning a standing ovation! Though hurricanes may have delayed his next release, you can be sure Henri Smith is here to stay.
Though Smith is frequently overshadowed by his sidemen, he stated up front "I wanted the record to last, to be classic.... in a New Orleans style, I want this to be a record of posterity." You’re bound to agree they succeeded. Highly recommended to fans of New Orleans jazz, Cool jazz, and vocal ballads.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist upriver in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.