by Ferell Aubre
Gary Dean Smith might be a new name in contemporary jazz, but he certainly has been creating music for years. Born in Los Angeles but raised in the south, Gary Dean Smith’s guitar playing, and songwriting reflect a diverse array of influences. He began his musical journey in his teens as a rock guitarist, driven by The Allman Brothers Band and other “southern rock” artists. Later, after moving back to L.A., he sought to expand his style and skills, doing so as a student of the jazz great Joe Diorio. His music has a contemporary sound, that offers a highly melodic listen. He is joined on his new album Awakening with his band, Xpansion Of A Sum. The members include Mer Sal on vocals; Spencer Pyne on bass, trombone; Phil Reyes on sax, flute; Donald Young on keyboards, trumpet, horn arrangement; Steve Fitzgerald on drums; Jimmy Branly on percussion. On the tune “Lucky,” Smith is joined by contemporary heavyweights, Jeff Lorber on keyboards; Jimmy Haslip on bass and Gary Novak on drums.
The album kicks off with the title track “Awakening,” lyrically the song is about unity and tearing down the walls of bigotry. Vocalist Mer Sal offers a soulful reading of Smith’s lyrics. Certainly, this tune has the ability of crossover, and offers a distinctly smooth-jazz emotive. Saxophonist Reyes conjures a solo with smooth edges and solid rhythm. Smith takes the reigns with a rock-solid tone on his guitar, his notes are melodious and filled with soulfulness. Overall, the tune has a memorable hook that lingers long past the listen.
When you see names like Haslip and Lorber it certainly offers a gravitational pull. “Lucky,” has all the Haslip markers. Novak and Haslip lock tightly, the grooves are bodacious and buoyant. Lyrically the tune relishes Dean’s California roots on Lompoc Street. Once again, Mer Sal is bumping with soulfulness. Lorber adds his keyboard to the festivities with lightning fast arpeggios as his left-hand accents with well-placed voicings. Sticking with the theme of a collaborative effort, Smith takes the role of comping on this tune with well-conceived colorizations, letting his songwriting skills speak for themselves.
The overall theme of Awakening is a positive spirit. Smith’s lyrics offer uplifting themes and poignant socially relevant stories. Smith is a team player no doubt, whether soloing or comping, his role is in service to the music. Truly, Xpansion Of A Sum as a band is a collaborative effort. Awakening is certainly a strong introduction to this emerging artist on the contemporary jazz scene.