Sunday, March 6, 2011

Joel LaRue Smith Trio: Thank You, Saint Agnes!

Five pm is a strange time for a concert but I wanted to hear this band since I liked the CD and I liked the artist.  When I arrived, a woman said "I hope it's not just us."  I remember what my musician sister once said to me and I repeated it to the woman:  "If they don't get a crowd, it's a paid rehersal for them" and its a private concert for us. Still, it's so much better for performer and audience both when there is a supportive crowd environment.  And by the time the Joel LaRue Smith trio started playing there was a crowd---and an energetic one at that.

The venue was in the campus center lecture hall, complete with tiered seating and computer outlets at nearly every seat.  Joel LaRue Smith sat at the beautiful grand piano with Fernando Huergo on bass and Tiago Michelin on drums. They were ready to play.  The audience was ready to respond.

This was the first jazz performance in this room, named after its benefactor, Dr. Agnes Varis, sometimes referred to as "Saint Agnes Varis."  In response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina's displacement of over 1000 musicians and destruction of their homes and their instruments, Varis set up a fund giving these musicians numerous opportnities to play.  A long time benefactor of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, her gift to the school resulted in what is now called the Varis Lecture Hall within the Campus Center, the location of this concert.  And Smith is here to "break in" the jazz in this lovely performance setting.

The buildup of the first song, Narrow Escape, (an original by Smith), is punctuated with a cymbal flying through the air and landing, miraculously, on beat. And somehow, this little distraction works and although the music had everyone's attention, we are now are rivoted. The band exchanges smiles amongst themselves and moves on.

During all this, I find myself caught up in the nonverbal communication among the musicians. Smith signals the drummer "Get ready to go," shaking his head up and down as he stares intently at the drummer.  Later on, he signals that it's time to close out the solo by showing three, then two then one finger.  All this while following charts and playing.  There's the "Nice going" signal of a quick smile and head shaking up and down but my favorite is the "Awesome!" signal---an even bigger smile and more head shaking. Its the "we-really-struggled-with-that-rif-during rehearsal-and-we-just NAILED IT!" signal.

Another Smith tune, El Mensajero, (The Messenger) the title derived from the the Jazz Messengers, is an upbeat and complicated rhumba with lots of "twists and turns" as Smith puts it.  He teases the audience with a threat of a "hum the tune" test afterwards. I'm glad he was only kidding.  I would have failed.

One of my favorites is a Thelonius Monk song, Straight, No Chaser, that he dedicates to his father, introducing it with "I promised my father I would play a blues." I loved it.  As they continue to move through a wonderful selection of Afro-Cuban originals and arrangements of songs by celebrated jazz greats, my foot is tapping and I know I have come to the right place.   What a great way to warm up a chilly grey afternoon. 

For more information on the band, Smith's music, or to purchase a CD, go to

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