by Marc Phillips
Jazz musicians are often fascinating people, and guitarist Gary Dean Smith’s story is quite unique. He started off playing guitar in heavy metal bands and southern rock bands, which definitely requires a different touch on the strings than jazz. After finding a lucrative career in Los Angeles working with Joe Diorio, he gravitated toward jazz fusion styles and he currently leads a quintet named Xpansion of a Sum which features bassist Spencer Pyne, keyboardist Donald Young drummer Steve Fitzgerald and sax player Phil Reyes. All of this was nearly sabotaged by a recent surgery that impaired his vocal cords–he didn’t know if he was ever going to speak again. So he grabbed his guitar and played and played and played, and after recovering his voice he set out to record this five-song EP, Awakening.
This album is a calling card, the kind you hand out when you’re back and ready for action. Smith covers a lot of ground with these five songs, jumping from a clear-headed ’80s R&B mode with the title song, which features a vivacious turn from vocalist Mer Sal of The Symbols, to a variety of styles, none too entrenched in the esoterica of fusion. The album even ends with satisfying organ jazz–“Lenny’s Lament” is smooth and relaxed and swinging, and it’s nearly lifted into straightforward rock and roll with Smith’s blistering solos.
There’s a clean quality to these five songs, and that’s partially due to the production values of legendary bassist Jimmy Haslip (who also plays on “Lucky” with guests Jeff Lorber on keyboards and Gary Novak on drums). This is a sound that leaps out at you and is rife with the feeling that everyone is so happy to be there, playing, not long after Smith was truly worried about continuing. I suppose that word is joy, and it’s tangible throughout. That ’80s sound that’s so vivid in the title track lessens somewhat over the course of Awakening, but there’s a smoothness that follows through like a stray thread, one that demonstrates the sheer amount of experience and professionalism of Smith and his friends.
EPs can be strange–sometimes they are too brief, especially if the results are good. The listener is left wanting more, which most people think is a good thing. Awakenings, however, feels very complete. It feels like Smith set out to accomplish something, to jump back into the studio and play and create something that makes him happy. Perhaps that’s why this album feels so upbeat.