Oftentimes, the reviews and liner notes of other people tend to interfere with a listener’s singular enjoyment of a record on its own. The listener needs to hear for himself without an outside force telling him what to feel and how to think. In the case of the Hughes-Smith Quintet’s latest jazz album from Detroit, a backstage glimpse of what’s going on with the 12 tunes is an absolute requirement to completely enjoying the modern sounds up close.
In the liner notes for the James Hughes-Jimmy Smith Quintet’s sophomore album, Ever Up & Onward, the song descriptions glimpse the fun the musicians had putting the songs together, as well as the poignant moments that inspired some of them. For the fun, upbeat, bluesy throwback “Dots,” Hughes described writing it tantamount to capturing the feeling of a “sugar rush, bursts of color and playful energy. I think we all need that from time to time. When I wrote this, it reminded me of the sound and feeling of laughter when musicians get together.”
When the listener has a chance to compare what Hughes described and what is played, the accuracy is uncanny, and a testament to what this Quintet can do.
The Hughes-Smith Quintet is saxophonist James Hughes and trumpeter Jimmy Smith, with a trio of fine musicians holding up the rhythm section. The Detroit jazz sound of the 1950s-‘60s becomes a whole other experience in the post-millennium in the care of Hughes, Smith, pianist Phil Kelly, drummer Nate Winn, and bassist Takashi Iio.
Ever Up & Onward, released on March 15, 2016 independently, is the Quintet’s second album and a modern, hard bop take on the jazz unique to Detroit. Detroit jazz is a little edgy, very soulful, with plenty of room to groove between both, and all under the cover of a smooth, skillful, sophisticated set of straight-ahead enthusiasts who really comprehend the mood and the chops involved.
The chops and the feel involved in pulling off eight original tracks — written by Hughes or Smith, three favorite standards, and a phenomenal drum intro from Winn set this Quintet apart.
All Music’s Thom Jurek dug the Detroit vibe from the onset. “The Motown sensibility at the heart of ‘East Detroit’ — established by drummer Nate Winn’s eternal groove and bassist Takashi Iio’s solid walk — is given wings by Smith’s song-like trumpet solo,” Jurek wrote, referencing just one of several outstanding cuts. “…Since the release of From Here on Out in 2013, JSJHQ have earned more bandstand experience, reflecting a growing confidence in their compositions. As a result, Ever Up & Onward more than lives up to its title.”
With a band as tight as this one, the temptation is to do nothing but show off. But the Quintet is confident enough in its chops to go with the flow of each song, whether it swings hard or soft. Nothing is too soft as to be boring. You can tell these musicians understand straight-ahead jazz at the core; there must always be strong, pivotal movement, and with this album, there most certainly is.
Actually, with a straight-ahead band as tight and talented as this one, the outstanding pieces tend not necessarily to be the flash cards but the subdued, underrated gems, like the cover of the African-American spiritual, “There Is A Balm In Gilead.”
These guys infuse so much class into the already soulful 1800s ballad, just a little of this, just a little of that, a piano sprinkled like fairy dust in between the lush horn lullaby turned up several notches, a hush of a barely simmering fire in the drums and bass. There’s plenty of room to mess it up, or muddy it up with unnecessary drama — unless you’re Hughes, who, like many jazz musicians, grew up in the church.
He arranged this piece as something special, dear to his heart. Again, those enlightening liner notes. “I grew up in the church, always sang in the choirs and played piano for them, even did a 10-year stint as choir director. This has long been one of my favorite spirituals. It deals with our experiences, pains and hardships, to which we often shake our head and ask, ‘Is there no remedy?’”
In Hughes’ arrangement and the Quintet’s playback, there is. They play this spiritual with heart and hope, a warm tone to the measures, and an underlying grace in the lift of the keys, the flow-over of the bottom notes… They play this spiritual with the grace that’s perhaps missing in a lot of real fire and brimstone churches with pastors who tend to emphasize hell over heaven.
Smith is especially outstanding in his trumpet solo, which flickers over the lamplight of the rhythm section rolling steady under Winn’s command.
For jazz bands, it’s easy to play up chops in the never-ending battle for one-upmanship. Far too often, jazz musicians forget feeling in their haste to prove they belong in the technically advanced club. Not these musicians. They come prepared to serve both.