Enoch Smith Jr. continues jazz gospel ‘Quest’ in first live album

Sometimes, raw, open honesty surpasses technical prowess. Enoch Smith Jr.’s Nov. 11, 2016 The Quest: Live At APC is just that kind of album.

Fascinated with the outcome of gospel and jazz, the Allentown, N.J.-based pianist and composer recorded his first live album and fourth major recording effort at the Allentown Presbyterian Church where he’s been director of music and worship the past four years. Smith and his special guests recorded The Quest on his own Misfitme Music label in the church from two separate Jazz Vespers concerts March and April last year.

The Jazz Vespers concerts are a regular part of the church he oversees in worship. His church hosts Jazz Vespers the first Saturday of every month from Feb. through June. “The theme of this year’s Vespers was ‘Searching for God,’” Smith explained in his press release. “The idea is taking people on a journey and the different manifestations it takes along the journey. They’re trying to connect with the Creator.”

With Smith on piano, guest artists join him on a jazz-gospel mission through 11 tracks — nine of them home-grown — from the two concerts. The guest artists include bassist Mimi Jones, drummer Andrew Atkinson, and vocalists Emily Braden and Sarah Elizabeth Charles, who recorded with Smith on two previous albums.

As soon as Braden lays open the vulnerability in the plain-spoken gospel-jazz vocals of “Home,” you know this isn’t going to be a polished, sophisticated affair. Church-goers will feel right at home in this one, recalling many worship services where volunteer choir members step forward for a solo, their voices wavering, pitch not quite there, but sung with bold-faced feeling, heart on the line.

“I love the grit in her voice. There’s a certain penetrating tone to it,” Smith approved.

As Braden makes her way through the gratitude imbued in “Home,” Smith’s there to back her up on the melodic phrasing in the chorus. Then, she steps back while the pianist opens the door to a world of gospel-inspired jazz, his golden notes pouring out of a humble vessel, at once classically formal and tender, folding in on themselves.

On a cover of “Jesus Loves Me,” the staple of every church, Smith’s piano intro and interludes sustain that formal and tender, overflowing river of familiar comfort and a sneak preview of the everlasting glory to come beyond these earthly doors. He provides both the vocal (Braden) and instrumental versions, both captivating.

“They have two completely different feels. I really enjoyed the place we took that instrumental version of it,” Smith explained. “…I wanted to give it a more mature spin, I guess.”

On the other cover of a Chick Corea/Neville Potter tune that fits within Smith’s spiritual framework, Smith and vocalist Charles try to soar over the weight of the world in “Open Your Eyes You Can Fly.” Charles’ voice reminds you a little bit of a humanized sparrow, with bits and pieces of other singers, Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries (“Linger”) and Thana Alexa (Antonio Sanchez’s Migration). With Charles (and these other singers), it's more about tones and textures than surface lyrical interpretation, which works great in this spiritual sub-context.

Smith makes some gaffes in this live album too, most noticeably in the most straightforward of jazz originals, “Wheels Up,” when he’s revving up — you can even hear him go, “Ack!” — but goes with it for the live feel. The gaffes lend authenticity to the experience. Besides, his gaffes with the incredible drummer John Davis giving as good as he gets sound like masterpieces.

“I attribute that song to my faith journey when I was around college age,” Smith explained. “I hadn’t really experienced a whole lot of hardship. The song kinid of reflects that period in my life when I was like, ‘Okay, man. Sky’s the limit. Wheels up. Let’s take off, and let’s go!’ That’s the vibe of that song.”

Smith grew up in church, the Church of God by Faith, in Rochester, N.Y. He sang in the children’s choir from age three on.

“Growing up and playing mostly in church, you get a whole different side of what music is all about,” he continued. “For me, it was always more of a spiritual connection than a connection of the head.”

After playing trumpet in middle school like so many boys tend to do and drums in church, Smith gravitated to the piano after witnessing the keyboardists do their thing during worship.

Fate placed him in a position to play piano during Sunday service, on the fly, learning as he went along. As he grew confident in the role of a substitute keyboardist for his church, Smith would also switch gears in his career.

He changed his plans to become a lawyer in favor of learning more at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he encountered a conflict in the dichotomy of feel and technique. “The transition from playing primarily by ear and then learning theory opened my mind to different approaches, devices, and things that I could use musically to expand or make my playing more interesting,” he said. “That was the plus side. I think the downside of it is when you get so focused on technique and technical things, it can pull you away from the more spiritual side of life and what brought me to the instrument and things that were naturally expressed. I’m working my way back to where I can play with the same feeling that I had when I started.”

Artist quotes from a press release provided by Terri Hinte.