What won Ashleigh Smith top honors at the third annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition back in November 2014? A finely wrought “The End of a Love Affair” and an equally well-crafted “Just One of Those Things,” both framed to spotlight the soul-meets-jazz majesty of her voice. If only Concord, whose release of this, her debut album, was the cornerstone of her prize, had opted for similarly unfussy settings.
Instead, too much of Sunkissed feels as if it has been filtered through Studio Rio’s version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day”-breezy, tropical and more sun-drenched than kissed. Too often Smith, still a neophyte at 27, seems overwhelmed by the excessive production, often lost amid horns, backing vocals and gratuitous effects. Such dégagé arrangements also feel emotionally disconnected from the opening “Best Friends,” a wistful ode to a fading relationship, the socially conscious “The World Is Calling” and the sage, empowerment-themed title track, three of five estimable originals co-written by Smith. The mellow vibe is, however, tailor-made for her lovely cover of Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile.”
And in fairness, the over-ripeness does occasionally subside. An understated “Blackbird” is stunningly beautiful, as is her deft handling of the exquisite “Beautiful and True,” written by Rosanna Eckert, one of Smith’s teachers at the University of North Texas. On such occasions, boil reduced to simmer, the results are indeed award-worthy. Perhaps a good lesson for next time.