Bassist Lee Smith's "Sittin' on a Secret": An Impressive Debut

Bassist Lee Smith has been playing--with just about everyone--for nearly 40 years, but this is his first effort as a leader. And it's a good one.

Bassist Lee Smith’s sound, unamplified, could fill a large auditorium. And a gorgeous sound it is, only equaled by, to these ears, Richard Davis, George Mraz and Niels Pederson. As a bassist, Smith has it all, and “all” includes a fierce sense of swing, formidable technique, exquisite taste and restraint, and an always-inventive ability as a soloist.

It’s a pleasant surprise, though hardly unexpected, that Smith is a superior composer and arranger as well, evidenced by his stellar work on his just-released CD, “Lee Smith: Sittin’ on a Secret.”
What is truly astonishing is that Smith, who has played with just about everyone and in just about every imaginable setting for more than 40 years—including the Delphonics, five years with Latin percussion legend Mongo Santamaria, Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Lionel Hampton, and a fondly-remembered ten-year tenure with Trudy Pitts—has never, until now, recorded as a leader.

Though not known as a jazz educator, the fact is, Lee Smith's teachings, albeit kept "all in the family," have had a tremendous effect on the jazz community at large. That's because his main student was a youngster named Christian McBride, who also happens to be Smith's son.

The six Smith originals as well as all the arrangements on all the CD’s tracks, reflect everything that the leader is as a bassist: imaginative, elegant, understated, swinging, and at times, exploratory. Though the ensemble charts do owe something to Horace Silver, the Jazztet, and even drummer Tony Williams’ latter-day acoustic jazz groups, the atmospheric sound that Smith gets from this all-star crew is refreshingly original.

His compositions are, too. No one is blowing on the changes of “Perdido” here. Smith’s songs are uniquely and thoughtfully constructed, as are the improvisations of all assembled. No one is coasting here. The structure of the compositions won't allow it.

Given the level of this work, highlights abound. Particularly gratifying is the use of Marc Adler's flute lead on the touching "Morning Glory" and "The Promise," the leader's restrained and reflective showpiece, "Bass Meditation;" the rocking shuffle of "Front and Center;" and Coltrane's "Count Down," which also features Adler and the supple piano of Anthony Wonsey. Denise King guests with a soulful and stirring vocal on "Super Star," and the rest of the players--drummer Justin Faulker, reedman Tim Warfield, trumpeter Terrell Stafford, trumpeter Duane Eubanks (who guests on "Morning Glory")and pianist Bill Meeks (guesting on Aquarian Reprieve")--are consistently creative and inspiring.

Smith has been around long enough to know the importance of pacing, song and solo length. He's wisely edited same, making for great pacing and consistent interest. If that's a traditional point of view, then so be it, as Lee Smith personifies tradition. Make that "today's tradition."

For availability of "Lee Smith: Sittin' on a Secret," visit www.LeeSmithMusic.com.

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Bruce Klauber