Contemporary jazz guitarist Richard Smith celebrates the enduring soul connection he shares with saxophonist Richard Elliot
“You never forget the first band you toured with or the first albums you made,” said contemporary jazz guitarist Richard Smith, who likened the bond between band members to sports teammates. “Music is a team sport. There’s giving and lots of tossing the ball to your teammates.”
Sports teams speak of the team building that takes place during road trips and the lessons learned that bring athletes closer together. Smith says the same applies to musicians. In his case, he spent a formative decade playing alongside hit making saxophonist Richard Elliot. While that musical partnership was formed over 30 years ago, the relationship created a lasting bond as evidenced by Smith’s forthcoming single, “Soul Share,” which features Elliot. The track will begin collecting playlist adds on September 20.
Smith began touring and recording with Elliot in the late 1980s. The guitarist had just graduated the music school at the University of Southern California and began an “intense” study in the saxman’s band during a seminal time for instrumental music that incorporated contemporary jazz, R&B, funk, fusion and pop.
“The genre was still developing. We just called it instrumental soul, or fusion, or funky-jazz and our music was comparatively intense as far as tempos, beats and solos. Richard (Elliot) was the quintessential strong leader having come out of the Tower of Power training camp. He’s a massive talent and the band had ridiculously good players. Being in Richard’s band provided an incredible education post-USC experience. I always called the Elliot band my second master’s degree,” said Smith, who wrote and produced “Soul Share” with fellow guitarist and Billboard chart-topper Adam Hawley.
Although “Soul Share” has a vivacious melody, buoyant guitar-and-sax banter, and a boisterous feel, those early tours weren’t easy or glamorous. “We toured in a rented Lincoln Town Car and equipment vans, taking turns driving, occasionally through snow-storms and tornadoes, to play shows in bowling alleys or open for larger acts that wouldn’t let us have monitors on stage or use lights. We became jazz commandos, winning our audience one tough gig at a time,” recalled Smith.
“Soul Share” benefits from a big band arrangement by Jacob Mann and David Mann’s horn arrangement along with trumpet play by Trevor Neumann. Drummer Eric Valentine and bassist Mel Brown tap out the rhythmic structure to which Hawley chimes in on keyboards and rhythm guitar. “Soul Share” clearly relishes in the enduring chemistry between Smith’s nifty fretwork and Elliot’s impassioned sax, a track celebrating an era as well as the connection between the two protagonists.
“It’s hard to think in terms of decades, but one of the best things about getting older is looking back and ‘getting’ each other on a sort of survivor level. Richard and I shared that for ten years forged through thousands of miles and many hit songs. ‘Soul Share’ honors those lessons I learned in ‘the college of the road,’ way back at the start of a new music genre,” said Smith, who will include the single on his 13th album, “Language of the Soul,” which he hopes to drop in the first quarter next year from Chillharmonic Media.
Smith has been in a reflective mindset ever since his stage three throat cancer diagnosis last year, which inspired his first single in five years, “Let’s Roll,” that was released last March. Now cancer free, he continues as a professor in the guitar department at the Thornton School of Music at USC, which is where he first encountered his former student, Hawley. In addition to his years spent flanking Elliot, Smith has recorded or shared the stage with Peter White, Kenny G, Dave Koz, Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair, Eric Marienthal, Brian Bromberg, Warren Hill, Everette Harp and Dan Siegel. His “SOuLIDIFIED” (2003) album spent 17 weeks in the top 10 in terms of airplay and his 2015 set, “Tangos,” spent more than five months in the top 10 of the indie and contemporary jazz charts.