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Melodic Workshop by Joe Smith

The far-reaching and wide influence of Wayne Shorter, both as a writer and performer, on the contemporary and straight-ahead jazz scene is one area of concentration to receive so little attention it boggles the mind. His ability to craft well-sculpted melodic lines and at the same time place them both within and separate from the drive of the rhythm section, is extraordinary. Further, the ways in which many of today’s most forward thinking musicians - such as Dave Douglas and Bill Frisell, to name just two - have taken this concept and developed their own compositional profiles as the next step in this evolution is startling and auspicious. Add to this list of Shorter stalwarts the work of master drummer/percussionist and composer Joe Smith.

Smith is a musician who performs in a manner that can truly be described as beautiful. His percussive thrust behind oft overlooked yet critically praised trumpeter John McNeil’s excellent This Way Out (Omnitone), sends that small ensemble, and McNeil’s playing in particular, into some wildly exciting and rarely traversed territory. In particular, Smith’s sensitivity to find colors that both compliment and stylishly ring out from the group on slower numbers make him a musician of the highest caliber. With Melodic Workshop Smith further develops his work in this area.

Recorded in Spain following a live performance of the music at the Barcelona Jazz Festival in 2003, both aspects - compositional and performance - of Smith’s musical persona are aptly displayed in Melodic Workshop, his second date as a leader. As a composer his tie to Shorter is unmistakable. The two saxophone lead team of Bill McHenry and Gorka Benitez never rush through melodies and many times, just as displayed in Shorter’s work with Miles Davis, the two saxophonists perform identical lines slightly offset in terms of both rhythm and pitch that are in and outside, at the same time, of the rhythmic base. Smith’s own words, in writing about this music on the Fresh Sound New Talent website (, reinforce this, "Melody is free and should be left alone as much as possible to move freely to its destination, unrestricted by impure influences. Rhythm is another animal." This music of free rhythmic association, for want of a better term, is displayed on a number of pieces. Shroo, for example, begins with some tight and complimentary two drumset work between Smith and fellow drummer Jorge Rossy, before the twisting and meandering saxophone lines are layered on top. There is no other word to describe the end result other than beautiful. Smith adds to the above an Ahmad Jamalish harmonic flux which complements the lead lines so well you almost can’t believe it’s possible to have everything fit so perfectly, and not, at the same time.

As a performer, Smith, who studied at both the Cincinnati Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music, is taste personified. He calls upon Rossy to join him in duo complimentary and contrary set work on four of the eight tracks. While double set playing may work in the music of The Moody Blues and The Grateful Dead - and then only because the two drummers usually play the exact same lines - it rarely works in jazz due to the individualistic/temporal/emotional nature of the music. Here, however, both drummers are so in sync with their own differing lines that you only know there are two drummers through careful listening and the reading of the credits - they are that elegant in their approach to the music.

The Fresh Sound New Talent label has again released a killer recording of young musicians who all deserve greater recognition. There is not a weak performer on the disc and they play, here’s that word again, beautifully. If there is a complaint it would be that the music has a general sameness to it, but when the music and musicians are this good you almost don’t care.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Joe Smith
  • CD Title: Melodic Workshop
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Fresh Sound New Talent
  • Tracks: Shroo, Rebel, Sasa Sings, Gulp, Sassy, Y (No Tengo Dinero), Long and Sad
  • Musicians: Joe Smith (drums), Bill McHenry (tenor sax), Gorka Benitez (tenor sax and flute), Guillermo Klein (piano and fender rhodes), Chris Lightcap (electric bass), Jorge Rossy (drums and fender rhodes), Maria Navarro (vocals), Anna Valldeneu (vocals), Sonia Rodrigues (vocals), Anna Catala (vocals), Dolors Garcia (vocals)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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