The young saxophonist Melvin Smith spent his formative years in a church choir. Even if you were not aware of this fact, not surprisingly, his melodious voice shows up with eminent songfulness when he blows his palpitating heart out whether it is on the tenor or the soprano saxophone. The spiritual intensity of gospel music also shines in his playing. The manner in which he articulates notes – especially when he stretches out, with great longing and reverence the endnotes of questing phrases – helps bring to a resolution the kind of spiritual musicality you may hear in a church psalter. In fact, you would think of this as antiphonal resolution that you often experience when psalms are sung.
But Mr Smith is not by any stretch of the imagination what one may call – idiomatically – an Old Testament “jazz musician”, or – to use a phrase once used by so-called modernists – a moldy fig. He does take a leaf out of the saxophonists who came after Bebop [which musician of any significance does not]? Like de rigueur idols, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, and Dave Liebman, Mr Smith plays both tenor and soprano saxophones. Like those great musicians he does play each iteration of the instrument with an easy virtuosity and flair, and together with his ‘singing’ voice, he brings to music something lyrical and vocalist-like on the instrument, which makes him unique.
His album, Perseverance is a judicious mix of familiar tunes and originals. Many musicians design their album repertoire in a similar manner. However, Mr Smith reaches places in the stratosphere where others may not because of another important aspect of is musicianship. This is the simplicity of line, the richness of his harmonic conception – he plays the changes sometimes but may also jettison that harmonic conception for modal playing. His music is also gospel-infused, but he is also a magnificent rhythmic player. Soli are fresh and refreshingly free of gratuitous virtuosity.
The album is almost split down the middle between the gospel-inflected music and the nakedly-swinging charts [Although one style almost always finds its way into the other on the same song]. The patently gospel songs feature the great Greg “Organ Monk” Lewis whose mighty and elegant melodic wheezing smears and oceanic organ arpeggios come in waves, and his soli echo and thunder in mighty waves bringing the church to the record. [Cue Beatrice for an experience of this spectacular kind of playing].
The other half of the album features another superb pianist – the inimitable Jeb Patton, whose proverbial star has been on a meteoric rise, and every time one expects a plateau in creativity, Mr Patton seems to find a second – and third and fourth wind, thereby reaching impossible new heights you never thought possible. Here, however, Mr Patton’s almost insolent virtuosity is brought to bear to serve – almost completely – the music of the saxophonist. Letter to the Ancestors is a superb example of hos the two musicians make space foe each other’s ingenuity and virtuosity.
The star power of the ensemble does not end with Messers Lewis and Patton. The inspirational album also features the magnificent contrabassist Corcoran Holt, a mainstay of many memorable album because of the sinuous rumbling that his bass-line continuo brings to music. I would be remiss if I did not also recognize the fiery percussion colouring of Jeremy Warren, who is an important element in the rhythmic glue that holds this music together.
In conclusion it bears mention that there is only one trajectory for the musical career of Melvin Smith and that is all the way to the top of the Mount Zion.
Music – 1: Sound for Sore Ears; 2: Karita; 3: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child; 4: Letter to the Ancestors; 5: Beatitudes Interlude; 6: One by One; 7: Getting’ It; 8: Beatrice; 9: Perseverance 10: Golden; 11: Beatitudes.
Musicians – Melvin Smith: tenor and soprano saxophones; Jeb Patton: piano [1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 11]; Greg Lewis: organ [2, 4, 7, 8, 10]; Corcoran Holt: contrabass [1. 3. 5. 6. 9, 11]; Jeremy Warren: drums.
Released – 2023
Label – MISIMWO Music
Runtime – 1:02:33