Following in the tradition of Tom Scott & The L.A. Express, one of the most successful and influential jazz/funk/pop/R&B bands from the ‘70s, guitarist Richard Smith has assembled an all-star cast of fellow Los Angeles-based players for an updating of that same crossover aesthetic that opened the door to jazz for a generation of listeners. Collectively known as The L.A. CHILLHARMONIC featuring Richard Smith, this stellar crew is rounded out by the world class rhythm tandem of bassist Brian Bromberg and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, percussionist Alex Acuña, keyboardist Jeff Lorber, trumpeter Greg Adams, saxophonists Gary Meek, Michael Paulo and Eric Marienthal and pianist Patrice Rushen.
“It’s something that represents the best and brightest in my geographic area,” says Smith, a former longtime sideman for chart-topping saxophonist Richard Elliott. “Most major cities have a philharmonic orchestra in the classical idiom, and some cities have municipal jazz bands, but no city has something that represents a major musical genre like instrumental jazz/funk/pop/R&B. And with this project I just wanted to represent and celebrate the unique musical signature as Los Angeles players, writers and arrangers.”
On their groove-heavy self-titled debut on Artistry Music, Smith and his dream team deliver a quintessentially L.A. sound – contemporary jazz with pop accessibility and a funky R&B edge – on infectious Smith originals like “Ultimate X,” “Back in the Day” and the hard-grooving title track along with faithful covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” Brian McKnight’s romantic “What We Do Here” and Dan Siegel’s bubbling romp “Alvinator.” For a change of pace, Smith offers some gentle nylon string acoustic guitar work on the soothing “Gift,” which features alluring wordless vocals and a stellar piano solo by Patrice Rushen, and also on “Agrigento,” a tender ballad which he says “captures a little bit of Sicily but with an L.A. Beat.”
Smith rightfully credits Tom Scott & The L.A. Express for setting the template for what the versatile players are going for on The L.A. CHILLHARMONIC. “To me, that group defined the L.A. sound and acted as a beacon for many of us ‘style-straddlers. The close sax and guitar lines, the innovative beats, the harmony, the recording quality and blowing was all the best.” He also cites The Crusaders, Joe Sample, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Lee Ritenour and Tower of Power as being potent influences on him as a developing player. “What these great artists did and continue to do is sophisticated but at the same time very accessible. They understand the confluence of jazz, pop and R&B. They make music that generally isn’t trying to impress or out- smart or be clever for clever’s sake. And that’s the direction I’ve chosen in my career.”
An accomplished player with a list of wide ranging influences, from jazz guitar legends Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Pat Martino to his mentor Joe Diorio and contemporary jazz pioneers Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton and Robben Ford, Smith is a seasoned veteran with a wealth of sideman credits over the past 20 years as well as nine releases as a leader. On The L.A. CHILLHARMONIC, he alternately summons up Wes-styled octaves (“L.A. Chillharmonic”), Bensonesque melodicism and fluency (“Checkin’ You Out,” “Ultimate X,” “Alvinator”), bluesy string bending (“Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “Back In The Day”) and soothing nylon string playing (“Gift,” “Agrigento”). Alto saxophonist Marienthal, a charter member of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, blows with funky authority on “Checkin’ You Out,” “Alvinator” and the old school groover “Back In The Day.” Greg Adams contributes some haunting muted trumpet alongside Tollak Olstead’s Stevie-esque harmonica work on “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” And drummer extraordinaire Colaiuta keeps it strictly in the pocket throughout this grooving L.A. manifesto.
A native of Detroit, Smith was raised in Eugene, Oregon and attended the University of Oregon before transferring to North Texas State University. He joined Dan Siegel’s band at age 19, subsequently recording three albums with the popular contemporary jazz keyboardist. He began teaching at the USC Thornton School of Music at age 23 and was a member of popular saxophonist Richard Elliott’s band for 10 years, appearing on six albums. Throughout his career, Smith has also toured and recorded with a host of smooth jazz luminaries including Peter White, Marc Antoine, Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum and Warren Hill.
Currently a professor in the Studio/Jazz Guitar Department at the USC Thornton School of Music, ranked with Julliard as one of the top conservatories in the World, Smith also heads the Guitar Masters program, which provides free lessons and mentoring to at-risk children in the Los Angeles area. “So many musicians would have been adrift and vulnerable to the urban and social elements if they didn’t have an instrument and a dream to ignite the spark. I was an ‘at-risk’ kid and all I knew after seeing Chick Corea and Return To Forever and Lee Ritenour when they came through Eugene in 1974 was that I wanted to be a successful guitar player – and in particular an L.A. one. And I guess I instinctively understood how much work that would take. I was just intoxicated by the guitar and I organized and focused my enthusiasm, and that kept me out of the trouble I was starting to get into. So guitar changed my life completely. And that type of experience is what I hope to replicate or make available to a few kids with the Guitar Masters program.”