Pianist/Composer Enoch Smith Jr. to Release His 4th CD, "The Quest: Live at APC," on His Misfitme Music Label, November 11

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Jazz and gospel music are branches of the same glorious African-American cultural tree and have influenced each other throughout their long histories. Pianist/composer Enoch Smith Jr. is at the forefront of bringing the tree's already related branches even closer together, as evidenced most recently by his inspired new recording, "The Quest: Live at APC."

"The Quest: Live at APC," the new recording by pianist/composer Enoch Smith Jr.

I'm working my way back to where I can play with the same feeling that I had when I started.

"The Quest: Live at APC" is the latest recorded chapter in composer/pianist Enoch Smith Jr.’s ongoing search to find a seamless synthesis of jazz and gospel and a balance between the spiritual and technical aspects of his creativity. Smith’s 4th CD as a leader and first live date will be released by his Misfitme Music label on November 11.

“It’s my belief that jazz would not exist in the form it does today if not for black gospel music and its contributors,” Smith wrote in a Woodshed column titled “Bringing the Gospel to Jazz: A Misfit’s Theme” that appeared in the September 2016 issue of Down Beat magazine.

The Rochester, New York-born, Allentown, New Jersey-based musician—with his acclaimed series of gospel-immersed jazz albums (2010’s "Church Boy," 2011’s "Misfits," 2015’s "Misfits II: Pop," and now "The Quest: Live at APC," all for Misfitme)—is at the forefront of bringing jazz and gospel even closer together.

"The Quest" is drawn from two Jazz Vespers concerts recorded in March and April 2016 at the Allentown Presbyterian Church, where Smith has worked full time as Director of Music and Worship for the last four years. One concert featured Smith with bassist Mimi Jones, drummer John Davis, and rising star vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, a veteran of Smith’s previous two CDs. Bassist Noah Jackson, drummer Andrew Atkinson, and vocalist Emily Braden joined Smith on the other.

In addition to Smith’s originals—including the swinging “Wheels Up,” the chant-like “Creator” featuring Braden, and the title track with its call-and-response gospel feel—the program contains a rendition of Chick Corea and Neville Potter’s “Open Your Eyes You Can Fly,” a feature for vocalist Charles, and the venerable hymn “Jesus Loves Me,” heard in both instrumental and vocal versions. “They have two completely different feels,” Smith says. “I really enjoyed the place we took that instrumental version of it.”

Enoch Smith Jr., 37, was raised in Rochester, New York in the Church of God by Faith, a Pentecostal denomination, where he began singing at age 3 in the children’s choir. He later played drums for services, then got a chance to sub for the regular pianist, making his way through trial and error. “Growing up and playing mostly in church, you get a whole different side of what music is all about,” he says. “For me, it was always more of a spiritual connection than a connection of the head.”

Although he had originally intended on becoming a lawyer and had done several internships at Rochester law firms while still in high school, Smith decided to interview for admission at Berklee College of Music at the suggestion of his high school choir director. He was accepted on the spot. “It was amazing and intimidating and exciting all at the same time,” he says of his classes at Berklee. “I definitely saw that I didn’t fit into the mold. I felt like a misfit.

“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 adds. “That was the plus side. I think the down side 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.”

Smith continues working full time at Allentown Presbyterian Church, where his duties include playing piano, composing original music, directing music programs for children of all ages, and creating Power Point presentations for services. He has recorded as a sideman with bassist Mimi Jones, saxophonist Stantawn Kendrick, drummer Reggie Quinerly, and saxophonist-singer Camille Thurman, among others, and since the summer of 2016 has been touring as an organist with fast-rising blues-and-soul singer-saxophonist Vanessa Collier.

Besides appearing in clubs in the New York City area and in Detroit, he has performed at the Barbados and New Rochelle jazz festivals and has composed music for independent filmmaker Nefertiti Nguvu’s short "I Want You" in 2007 and her 2014 feature "In the Morning."

The Enoch Smith Jr. Trio, with Noah Jackson (“my favorite bass player”) and drummer Andrew Atkinson, will perform a CD release show for "The Quest" at Club Bonafide in New York City on Friday 11/11.

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Terri Hinte