Lucy Smith consecrates ‘Songs My Mama Would Like’ into sacred jazz
Except for the adorable family photos, there’s not a trace of the artist in the front album cover, Autumn In Augusta: Songs My Mama Would Like [September 10, 2013]. Chicago vocalist Lucy Smith buries herself in the five selections with her band, bassist Junius Paul, keyboardist Marcin Fahmy, and drummer Michael Caskey — all artisans in their craft.
While unorthodox, Smith — a church music director of the Fourth Presbyterian “Jazz At Four” service, rearranging worship music in a new sacred jazz paradigm — puts the focus in the proper place: her influential, music-loving mother. “Autumn in Augusta is a sly smile, a deep chuckle and a fierce belief that ‘everything is going to be alright.’ Autumn in Augusta is a tribute project for and about my mother and her music. It is music I grew up listening to and rebelling against. Now I find my mother and her music in just about everything I do. It turns out she had pretty awesome taste! My mom, Julia Ann Smith, was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia and died in Chicago almost 20 years ago. She introduced me to Josh White, Nina Simone, Mariam Makeba, and Trini Lopez, just to name a few. I am forever grateful.”
The songs have an overall blues-gospel feel, which makes sense given her origins and inclinations. At times, the heavy, plodding blues weighs down any other sense. Even the usually uplifting, dare one say upbeat “Joyful, Joyful” seems sadly lonely, despite the carefree twang of pianist Fahmy’s play and bassist Paul’s ascending skip as they move from a slow rumba to some swing. “This arrangement … is ‘influenced’ by Oscar Peterson’s version of ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy (Night Train).’” Smith herself seems to rush through the lyrics, as if trying to keep up with the skip and jumps musically. The first track does redeem itself with a straightforward bass-and-piano-led solo interchange at about the 1:23 mark. But the effect leaves the pianist missing the bassist’s jumping off points, similarly to the vocalist trying to catch up. The elementary bass riff at the fade further drags.
The bright piano artistry of Fahmy keeps the depressing “Wayfaring Stranger” barely afloat. Otherwise, Smith doesn’t much change the funereal atmosphere of the Appalachian tune, despite pointing out its jubilee groove. The few seconds of piano color early in the ballad isn’t enough.
“How Can I Keep From Singing?” is as dirge-like as one can get and still maintain normal oxygen levels. This soulful effort remains bogged down in depressing, plodding blues notes. At this point, Smith as a vocalist begins to settle into the same muted, matte zone.
When Smith first listened to this 1964 hit by the Animals, she was little and didn’t understand the point. Her mom played a better Nina Simone cover to somewhat ease the block. When the vocalist grew older, she found the answers in the open-ended, story-within-a-story lyrics, and tried to convey that same, layered mystery in her updated, blues-gospel version. To a certain extent, she succeeds.
She slows the tempo even further if that’s possible, disturbing the original tepid phrasing in unctuous choices — letting her vocal personality and her pianist’s grooves do most of the work — personalizing the generic male narrative to fit her understanding, starting with this genius move: “And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl, then me, oh Lord, I’m one.” Then she further revised: “If I had listened to what my mama said, I’da been at home today, but bein’ so young and foolish my Lord, that rambler lead me astray…”
Her arrangement and word choices in phrasing (New Orleans, gamblin’, the ruin) work well with the pianist Fahmy’s accompaniment, which hints at seductive peril around every corner in fine, warm, but sinfully sexy tones. If only all the songs didn’t fall so far down into a dark, sad lament.
Smith grew up with Leroy Carr’s “How Long, How Long Blues” standard, a favorite of her mama’s, especially Lead Belly’s. “Marcin [Fahmy] and I took our time with it and found a great space.” By the time the listener gets to this last track, it’s been too long sittin’ with the blues.
Review first appeared in Examiner Feb. 11, 2014.