When the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, jazz guitarist Michael-Louis Smith worked through his feelings on the subject in the way he usually does. He picked up his guitar and began writing.
“Most nights, when I can, I sit at home and just write songs or whatever, and pour some ideas into my tape recorder and stuff,” Smith said recently from Saratoga Springs. (He splits his time between Saratoga, where he grew up, and New York City). “I had a couple songs that, maybe two or three songs that directly came out of feelings I was having after the tragedy, just hearing about all the devastation and seeing some things just on TV. It was just, whoa, horrific, you know. So I just had a couple songs that I wrote, and I kind of put them on the back burner for a little while.”
At the time, Smith was prepping the release of his quintet album “Portrait of MLS,” which eventually came out that summer. After playing out with his quintet in support of that material, Smith once again sat down with the Haiti-inspired pieces he had written before — “Haitian Lament,” “Mass Grave” and “Aftermath” — and realized he had something larger on his hands.
Michael-Louis Smith Quartet
with guest pianist Victor Gould
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany
HOW MUCH: $18
MORE INFO: 465-5233 ext. 4, www.wamcarts.org
“I kind of got the idea to flesh it out with a little bit of a story,” Smith said.
10 years together
The 10-track “First Black Nation,” which features the three initial pieces Smith wrote, was released on May 28 on iTunes and Amazon.com, with a physical release at a show at DROM in New York City on June 4. Now Smith is taking the album on the road with his longtime quartet, which played on the album and last year celebrated 10 years of performing together — bassist Diallo House, drummer Ismail Lawal and saxophonist Stacy Dillard.
The group, with guest pianist Victor Gould, will be at The Linda Friday night, where they will perform the album in its entirety. For Smith, a veteran of area jazz clubs like The Stockade Inn in Schenectady and 9 Maple Avenue in Saratoga Springs, playing a larger venue like the Linda is “a big deal.”
“It’s great to be able to come and see all my friends and family, that support,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of love for us going back and forth; we’ve got a lot of friends up there, a lot of support. I actually met Diallo in Schenectady [at the Pedestrian Cafe, which closed in 2000].”
“First Black Nation” marks the recorded return of Smith’s quartet, which, with the exception of Dillard, sat out “Portrait of MLS.” Gould, a Los Angeles native whom Smith met in New York City a few years ago, was also involved in the recording, which took place in a single session on May 20, 2012.
Prior to recording the album, the quartet, plus Gould, backed Nigerian soul singer Nneka on her 2012 U.S. tour.
“We were just coming off the tour with Nneka, and we recorded more music than just the Haiti suite, but I ended up including a little cameo on the album,” Smith said. “[Gould] played on one ensemble tune [‘Aftermath’], and then he’s got a solo called ‘Aftermath Postlude.’ So it wasn’t originally — I wasn’t originally visualizing — piano.”
In fact, only four of the songs feature a full band, including the three Smith initially composed plus album-opener “In the Hot Sun,” which Smith wrote “to kind of brighten it up a little bit — a little bit of life before the earthquake, type of thing.”
Representing the quake
The other songs are solos, with each musician getting a featured piece. Lawal’s drum solos on “Earthquake” and “Aftershock” represent just that — the initial earthquake that hit on Jan. 12, 2010, and the subsequent aftershocks. “Voices in the Rubble” showcases Dillard’s saxophone (“Stacy really plays his heart out there,” Smith said); House has a bass solo on “A Foul Wind”; and Smith’s “Hope” closes the album.
“I thought it would be a good idea to have everyone do a solo piece to move the story along,” Smith said. “It adds kind of like an introduction to the other pieces, to have it be more personal to everyone.”
For the solos, Smith basically let his bandmates do what they wanted. “I have sheet music with the title, and then a staff,” Smith said. “So for instance, track two was just a piece of paper that said ‘Earthquake’ and then blank staffs, so that Ismail could just create whatever is in his imagination.”
The sessions also reunited Smith and House with former bandmate Andy Carballiera, who is a partner at The Record Co. in Boston, where the album was recorded. Smith, House and Carballiera co-founded the group Hot House in 1999, which eventually evolved into the Michael-Louis Smith Quartet that performs today.
“We knew we wanted to do it with him, so we went up to Boston,” Smith said. “It was just pretty relaxing — we were in the studio the whole day; we recorded the whole thing in one day.”
After the Linda show, the band will be hitting the road for a full tour to support the album, with possible West Coast tour dates in the future. The band will be playing multiple dates at Druthers Brewing Co. in Saratoga Springs throughout the summer, and will be at A Place For Jazz in Schenectady in November.
Smith is hoping that “First Black Nation” will help bring more attention to the ongoing relief efforts in Haiti.
“This tragedy is so epic that it’s still effecting people over there,” Smith said. “With the recovery and things going on, we hope that people will have opened their eyes to what is going on. As far as relief efforts for us, we just stick to the music — if we can kind of point people in the right direction for a good cause, that would be great.”