Just after 6 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, February 7, 2016, a tuxedo-clad Alex Smith sat alone on stage at a grand piano near the 50-yard line in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, set to accompany Lady Gaga as she sang the National Anthem to introduce the championship game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. Smith was a natural for the gig: He is a regular member of singer-trumpeter Brian Newman’s quartet, they have backed Lady Gaga numerous times, and he knows her habits and needs. “She’s very open, she gives us a lot of trust,” he says. “She really appreciates it if you’re a good listener. I’m not a flashy player, and she likes me to give her the space to do what she wants to do with her phrasing. I try to keep it simple and stay out of the way.”
Pianist-organist Smith, just turning 39, is a Cincinnati native who attended the Cincinnati Conservatory in the late 1990’s, where he got to know Cleveland native Brian Newman and tenor saxophonist Steve Kortyka, another Ohioan who is also a regular member of Newman’s quartet. With drummer Paul Francis, they have now worked together since 1999, and in New York City since 2003 at such venues as the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, the Rainbow Room, Iridium, Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel, and the Django, a new room at the Roxy Hotel named for the superb Swing-era French gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
At Rose Bar, a Tuesday- and Thursday-evening residency for the group since the fall of 2011, Smith often is heard on organ, where he displays a fondness for the clear, bebop-rooted lines of Don Patterson and Jimmy Smith more than the heavier blues-playing of Jack McDuff or Jimmy Mc Griff. As a pianist his original influence was Bill Evans, but a careful listener can also hear traces of modernists Cedar Walton and Harold Mabern in his solo lines and chording. Newman’s inspirations as a singer are the American masters Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, and Sammy Davis, Jr. He and Smith have been friends and colleagues for more than 15 years, and Smith is aware that “Brian likes surprises, spontaneity, he likes a lot of high energy, likes that excitement behind him. I think it’s all about contrast, and we try to be sensitive to dynamics, like building to a big moment in the bridge. It has to do with figuring out when to do that build.”
Smith’s postgraduate studies with standout jazz pianist Fred Hersch showed him the importance of knowing about phrasing and adapting to what master accompanists Norman Simmons and Herman Foster have both said about backing singers—Simmons with regard to not playing over the singer’s voice, and Foster about the importance of knowing the lyrics to as many songs as possible.
“When I studied with Fred Hersch,” says Smith, “I phrased ‘Body and Soul’ differently one day, and Fred said, ‘you don’t know the lyrics to this, do you? No singer would ever phrase it like that.’ Now I know to break it down to its simplest parts, its bare bones, and absorb the material, then I can do alternate concepts. This was sort of a late lesson for me. I came up in the era of ‘fake’ books, which were illegal transcriptions of standards, and then legal real books, but now often I’ll seek out recordings and learn by ear, learn the chords and the lyrics.”
Norman Simmons feels that an accompanist’s job is to elevate the singer. To Smith, “that is such a profound statement—a part of the job is that you have to find a way to make them comfortable. A lot of singers may not read music well, so they can feel vulnerable, they don’t want to feel judged. There they are out front, and it’s easy to make them feel bad, or throw them off, by playing a wrong chord or wrong intro. Brian and I used to get together and work arrangements out; now we can just adjust to each other. A big part of his world is ‘I Get a Kick Out of You,’ ‘Night and Day,’ ‘My Blue Heaven,’ all those old classics. Although sometimes he’ll suddenly say, ‘Let’s do such-and-such,’ and I’ll think ‘Oh my God, we haven’t played that in 6 years.’”
Newman’s group, with Smith on piano or organ, has backed Tony Bennett more than 30 times, and played on Bennett’s 2014 Grammy-winning duet CD with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek. Smith was aware of two duet albums his inspiration Bill Evans had done with Bennett, The Tony Bennett-Bill Evans Album in 1975, and Together Again in 1977, renditions of such lovely standards as Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing,” Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart,” and the Oscar-winning Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer movie theme “Days of Wine and Roses.” “What fascinates me the most is Bill’s ability to anticipate Tony’s phrasing and have the most luscious chords waiting for him at the cadence. Working with Tony, he likes to change up his phrasing a lot, so he likes to rely on us. He doesn’t want too much in the background—just have us be faithful to the tune and keep it simple. He wants a predetermined sense of how a song will go, and where certain ‘hits’ will happen in it. Being able to phrase freely is very important to him—that way he can sing the melody one way one day, the next time differently. His audiences expect to hear ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ and ‘The Good Life’ and things like that, his big hits, so we do these a lot.”
The celebrated jazz and rhythm-and-blues organist Bill Doggett once reminisced that, working with star singer-saxophonist Louis Jordan in 1947, “I played a line behind, or I guess it must have been over, a vocal line of his, and he told me later, ‘Doggett, that’s the best solo I’ve ever heard, but you can’t speak when I’m talking. Don’t cover up my words.’” Alex Smith, who came late to the concept of the Hammond organ, now plays organ some 70 percent of his time with Brian Newman and in other appearances. He realizes that “the organ swells, you wouldn’t want to do too much of that with a singer. It wasn’t until eight or nine years ago that I really began to play organ, although I’d always liked the sound, and I had organ records, the classic things like Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith, and Larry Young’s Unity—he was the McCoy Tyner of organists—and later, Larry Goldings’s Big Stuff. Goldings had a cross of piano and organ conceptions, and he’d distilled his lines and chords for what was necessary. With him it was all about the group, not flash for flash sake. The organ sound, it’s like a one-person big band, and I think I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it, and I’d sort of written it off. You have to work more with piano to fill the sound. You have to . . . figure out where the singer is coming from—but if the singer says, ‘But Not For Me,’ A-flat, then you know that they have some sense.”
Fifty years ago, the jazz organ “rage” was at its peak, with organ rooms in almost every major American city of any size. The black neighborhoods of New York City and Newark across the river were packed with clubs featuring the instrument, with Small’s Paradise, Count Basie’s Lounge, the Shalimar, Sugar Ray’s, the Palm Cafe, and others around Harlem and the Key Club, the Cadillac Club, the Playbill, the Front Room, and Teddy Powell’s Lounge among the popular places in Newark. Many top performers in this area of jazz—organists Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, Brother Jack McDuff, Doc Bagby, Freddie Roach, Rhoda Scott, Richard “Groove” Holmes, John Patton, Shirley Scott, and Larry Young, along with prominent saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Stanley Turrentine, and Willis Jackson, among many others—lived and worked regularly in the vicinity. A negative outcome of the civil-rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 was that the welcome and long-overdue integration of the races began to break down this jazz-organ “circuit,” and by the mid-1970’s most of these rooms were history.
One of the few classic Harlem organ rooms still open is Showman’s Cafe, a neighborhood institution since 1942 at three different locations, and now located on 125th Street near Morningside Avenue, with a house-owned Hammond B-3 on the bandstand, where Alex Smith has worked a couple of times, once with veteran tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon. “There are very few organists in New York City these days,” says Smith, “and very few places with decent pianos, so I’d almost rather play organ. I’ve played at Showman’s a couple of times, once with Jerry, who’s been sort of the house band there for a while. I’m good friends with Rudy Petschauer, a drummer who works a lot in this area. Other places, I just show up with my little keyboard, set it up, and I’m good to go.”
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