Bruce Von Stiers
Musical performers sometimes change styles and, once in a while, will even change genres. One such performer is guitarist Gary Dean Smith. He started out playing rock, styling his music after such Southern Rock legends as the Allman Brothers. But later on, Smith changed things up and started incorporating jazz into his music, even studying up jazz great Joe Diorio. Moving forward in his musical journey, Smith put together a progressive jazz ensemble he calls Xpansion of a Sum.
Utilizing members of his ensemble, Smith recorded an EP album aptly titled Awakening. The album has five songs and a play time of twenty one minutes. The album was produced by Jimmy Haslip, who was a founding member of The Yellowjackets. Awakening is being released by MF Records and Malibu Films.
The album features several musicians and one vocalist. Phil Reyes is on flute and saxophone. Donald Young played trumpet and did the horn arrangements along with playing keyboards. Spencer Pyne was on bass and trombone. Steve Fitzgerald was on drums and Jimmy Branly did the percussion. And Gary Dean Smith was on guitar. The vocalist was Mer Sal. Besides being in Smith’s band, Reyes can also be heard playing with Parkside. Young has toured extensively and played in bands with such diverse names as Hot Lunch. Pyne has his own recording studio and continues to play with various artists and bands. Fitzgerald has played on albums by Bella Groove and others. Branly has played with various top artists, including Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin. Gary Dean Smith played guitar on the album. Aside from her vocals with Smith’s group, Mer Sal fronts a blues/ funk/ rock band called The Symbols.
Up first is the title track, Awakening. It has a blend of gentle jazz and R & B music. Mer Sal’s vocals are terrific. It is about breaking down racial barriers and everyone becoming enlightened to the fact that we are all equal. There is a great sax solo in the song as well.
The second song is Hummingbird. It is a smile effecting, head bopping light groove piece.
Lucky has a killer groove tone and fantastic vocals by Mer Sal. This song has some ultra cool musicians who came in on it. Jeff Lorber co-wrote the song and plays keyboards on it. Jimmy Haslip does the bass work on the song. And Gary Novak, who has worked with David Sanborn and Lee Ritenour among others, kicks in on drums for the song.
The Yearning has subtle background music supporting Smith’s rock influenced styled guitar playing in the song. There is also a nice flute solo in the song.
The album concludes with a cool, fairly subtle, toe tapper called Lenny’s Lament. There is an ultra-cool keyboard solo in the song.
I think that the rock world lost out when Gary Dean Smith decided to become more of a jazz artist. He is a great guitarist. And the members of his ensemble match his talent. Each musician brings forth something a bit extra. And Mer Sal’s vocals are superb. I would definitely recommend Awakenings as an album to add to your jazz collection.
Awakenings is scheduled to be released on February 8th . You should be able to grab a copy at your favorite music retailer.
To learn more about the album, visit www.gdspmusic.com