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Jonah Smith Biography
It may be no surprise that New York-based Jonah Smith came into his own as a singer/songwriter/pianist in the world's biggest melting pot. Check in with Smith in a subterranean downtown jazz club, sit for a while and listen to him play-his hat cocked sideways, his manner shy, his humor dry-and you'll see that he, like New York, is a little bit of everything: a seasoned player, he's a little bit jazz; a heartfelt vocalist, he's definitely soul; a talented bal- ladeer and storyteller, he's even a little Nashville. Yet, essentially, at its essence, it's rock and roll.
Smith's a throwback, for sure, and there's something very familiar about his music, but it doesn't really sound like anything you've heard before. It does, however, sound very of the moment. His voice soulful and magnetic and his songs awash in the warm, distinctive tones of his Fender Rhodes, Smith writes songs that sound brand new. It's what's earned him rave reviews in New York and up the East Coast: The music industry meets its future, wrote The New York Post. Smith's music was dubbed striking by The Boston Globe, and sophisticated and soulful by Modern Drummer. During a recent tour of Spain, La Vanguardia called Smith one of the most important voices in modern soul music.
Tastefully rootsy and endlessly soulful, Smith's self-titled, national debut-the premier release from Relix Records-ranges from vintage, pedal steel-laced Americana to classic, Rhodes-drenched, blue-eyed soul. Some, like the funky, smoky and sweet single, When We Say Goodnight, are something else entirely. I just try to let the song be what it wants to be, Smith says. If I have a melody that's really strong, I'm not worried about it being too simple. It's the approach he used when writing My Morning Scene, the track that secured him the talents of his dream producer, Lee Townsend. The day that I signed the contracts with Relix, Townsend called me and said that he had checked out my MP3 [for My Morning Scene ] and that he thought we could work well together that there was a lot of common ground.
Some written simply and spontaneously in his head, the songs on his Relix Records debut disc find Smith transitioning into a more song-oriented period. Previously, he might have been a little too focused on the playing on individual tracks. But if his earlier work was perhaps music for other musicians, these are songs that everyone can love and get into.
It's a change in direction that was hinted at a few years earlier, when Jonah penned the gem Stay Awhile, the first song that he wrote away from his instrument. Fleshed out on the record by jazz guitar wiz Bill Frisell's subtle electric guitar playing and Texas fiddler/singer Carrie Rodriguez's harmony vocals, the song and the lyrics really come across: Daylight breaks so easy on your fingertips / and you tease me when you're looking so coy / the morning sun is pleased to be lingering on your lips / and we can lay here just a little bit more...
Simple, sweet and soulful, Stay Awhile built a bridge to such Rhodes-soaked beauties as Cast a Long Shadow - featuring Garth Hudson of The Band on accordion-and Little Black Angels, which is arranged perfectly by Smith's crack band: saxophonist Bob Reynolds, drummer Marko Djordjevic, guitarist David Soler and bassist Ben Rubin.
Having played with Jonah since his move to New York in 2000 and onward through hundreds of performances in the U.S. and Europe, they provide the perfect backdrop for these songs. Together they recorded Jonah Smithin the spring of 2005 at The Studio in Woodstock, NY. The room itself just had this magic to it. The second we started playing, it sounded warm and rich, Smith says. The ingredients were all there: the right songs, the right producer, the right musicians, and the right studio.
I'm most comfortable in front of the piano singing, he adds. Alot of times, I let the songs articulate for me. I don't have to always explain myself. I like that-I think that's probably why I became a songwriter.
The end result is the type of music, the type of songs that have you feeling like you're onto something at a very early stage, like you're hip to something very early on that could blow up. And that's kind of my goal, says Smith. I'm looking to have an emotional impact on people-I'm trying to get a reaction.