The Smith quartet's months of preparation for this live recording aboard the S.S. Norway in the fall of 1998 are evident. This is not a typical jazz cruise jam session. It is music by a working band at ease with one another and with a set of compositions that are far above the quality of most record session originals. Although bassist Smith's playing was impressive on previous recordings with Bill Charlap, Gene Bertoncini and others, those dates only hinted at his writing ability. A splendidly sinuous version of Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem" ends the album, but it is an encore to a set of eight Smith pieces that sustain interest, something that cannot be said about the masses of originals that clog so many jazz CDs.
The opening tune, "Pipe Dream," has melodic charm and logical harmonic structure that allow the players to display their essential qualities; Smith's fat tone and ringing notes, the crispness of Ron Vincent's drumming, Charlap's encyclopedic piano mastery, the passion and restraint of Allen Mezquida's alto saxophone. Throughout, Smith's compositions have a thoughtful, reflective character that is evident regardless of tempos, some of which are brisk. His waltz "Enigma" (unrelated to the J.J. Johnson tune) and the headlong "Take the Bullet Trane" are contrasting manifestations of that character. In solo and accompanying Mezquida's and Smith's heated choruses, breathtaking playing like Charlap's on "Bullet Trane" puts him in the forefront of today's pianists.
Chiaroscuro proprietor Hank O'Neal maintains in his notes that on musical grounds-absent the marketing considerations that drive major labels-these players would be famous. As long as there are Hank O'Neals to capture and release music of this quality, perhaps it is not an endangered species.