Being a church musician involves a certain kind of versatility which lends itself to a certain kind of cadence. This is particularly true in the black church. It’s a tradition steeped in soul and fortitude in the face of segregation; it’s a sound that lends itself to unabashed shouts; it’s a chordal structure that lets everyone in the sanctuary find a place, if the Holy Spirit blesses the congregation with the gift of song (I know the sound well but my childhood home church only had the gifts in fits and starts, I know and recognize the pattern but let’s just say my childhood had some really superb Bible teaching, but the choir left things to be desired). While pianist Enoch Smith Jr.’s latest album is a live recording from a Presbyterian Church, every drop of what he plays, and The Quest: Live at APC is an album mainly of original compositions, sounds right at home in the red book (that’s The New National Baptist Hymnal to the uninitiated).
Smith has been the Director of Music and Worship at Allentown Presbyterian Church for the last four years working full time in New Jersey making a joyful noise, and building upon his own sound. His 2011 release Misfits hinted at this sound that was there all along, but his time in service has provided more focus as a player and as a composer. His songs here, only a couple of them are not his own, are airy and expressive but never overstay their welcome. The album, based on two concerts — one concert featuring Smith with bassist Mimi Jones, drummer John Davis, frequent collaborating vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles; the other featuring bassist Noah Jackson, drummer Andrew Atkinson, and vocalist Emily Braden — has a sharpness to them despite have some slight roughness around the edges for a live recording. It’s a congenial time for this crowd, let alone for the band. It’s a very polite energy in the room that flows through the recording, allowing for these songs to be the main highlight.
The cover of Chick Corea and Flora Purim’s “Open Your Eyes You Can Fly” with Charles on vocals is breathy and take the song to different lengths. However, the other cover on the album, of the traditional hymn “Jesus Loves Me”, takes a simple frame and gives it a bunch of extra kick. It rises from a children’s singsong affirmation to an utterly elegant tune that can truly lift spirits. As the album closes with an alternate take, it’s hard to believe Smith could take it even further, and yet he does and the listener is all the more enlightened because of it. It’s an inspired arrangement. Even more can be said for the rest of these original songs. Opener “Searching for God” establishes the mood here that his is a jazzy collection with the Spirit subtly moving through. “The Quest” can be at home at any contemporary jazz album but it fits even better in this Gospel context. For a live song, it can do so much more than the four minutes and twenty seconds including polite applause that this song gets. Penultimate track “Wheels Up” downright swings with the best of them, giving a shift in mood to the album but a welcome one.
The Quest: Live at APC is a polite album. It’s an album that was recorded for a church. It’s an album from a church musician. If anything, this would lend it to being considered a polite album. It’s not rough, it’s not nasty. One would think it wouldn’t be that interesting without some grit on it, but Gospel comes from the soul. It comes from the still small voice that speaks from within making groanings that we cannot understand but they certainly can come with a good beat. Gospel comes from the black tradition and that affects music in all kinds of ways– the labor inherent in the black tradition is its own kind of grit. Gospel musicians,, church musicians, are a different kind of musician, the kind of musician who can do pretty much everything because they’re playing for the Lord, and with that kind of responsibility one has to come correct. The Quest is a polite album, but it throws down. That’s the style of play one should expect from church musicians.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.