Drummer/composer Greg Smith has something to say
Montreal-born and raised drummer / composer Greg Smith lived in NYC in the 1990s, where he embraced the new alternative underground jazz scene. He played extensively and made connections with some of his favorite musicians, including David Binney, Chris Speed and Reggie Washington. In Europe, Smith is also known for his role in the LAMA trio with trumpet player Susana Santos Silva and bass player Gonçalo Almeida. He recorded four albums with guest roles for Chris Speed and Joachim Badenhorst.
Now Smith is moving between the European cities of Rotterdam and Berlin. In the last corona year, he also made a trans-atlantic debut album called Cluster 001 that will be released worldwide on April 23, 2021. The album is a must for the curious listener who will appreciate the beats, pop-like melodies, electronics and daring improvisations.
The experiences of making music for contemporary dance and theater and expressive improvisation all converge on this album. The album is a pleasant surprise in the jazz landscape. A reason for Jazzradar to question Greg Smith about Cluster 001.
How did this group come together and how was the collaboration?
I knew right from the start that I wanted David Binney in my project. I’ve known David a long time. He played on my very first jazz project in Canada in the mid-90s. It was with a band called Life On Mars, and we won 1st Prize at the Festival de Jazz à Vienne for ‘Best new group’, and another award for ‘Best compostion’ at the Montreal Jazzfest. Much of that success I attribute to his input, not only as a player but as conceptualiser. He gets you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to take risks. If you’re a strong enough personality to stand up to that, you can end up making some great music.
In 2018 I moved to Berlin. There I met Vanja Kevresan, A Serbian guitarist, and Alex Maksymiw, a Canadian guitarist. We started doing sessions, and it was real fun. Not my music, just the sort of things you normally do on sessions – standards, etc.. But I could feel that these two guys were right for my project. They both have a very individual approach, and they don’t sound at all like each other. I could have chosen a guitarist and a keyboardist, but I liked their sound so much that I asked Alex if he would want to play the role of ‘keyboardist’. He uses guitar synth, so it made sense to me. Logan Kane was already was in David’s band, and it was a natural step to bring him on board.
We recorded all the tracks at Studio Greve in Berlin, except for ‘My Pet Robot. We didn’t have time to do that one together in the studio, so it was recorded in layers aferwards. I started with my drums, playing on top of a robotic sequence I created. Then the guitars, and last the bass and sax. David and Logan live in Los Angeles. It was the only way to get it done. But it turned out to be one of the strongest and most interactive-sounding tracks on the album.In the final stages I added some keyboard overdubs, and the other guys also added little things here and there. And then I sent all the material to David. He mixed and mastered it.
My Pet Robot is a nice and solid opening song. All compositions with captivating titles are yours. Were those numbers already lying on the shelf?
No, there were no old songs used on Cluster 001. I wrote the music in parts of 2018 and 2019. My Mom had died shortly before. One thing she said hit me hard: ‘You have something to say, do it for yourself. There will always be time to do all that other stuff you do’. She meant well and I’m grateful that she said that. Because I had been working behind the scenes in all the projects that I was invested in. Now it was my time to put my myself out there as the artist.
My Mom had died shortly before. One thing she said hit me hard: ‘You have something to say, do it for yourself. There will always be time to do all that other stuff you do’.
NLX is a popular cannabis strain, especially in the Netherlands. Seems like an inspiration for the music. The song reminded me a bit of the dark music from David Bowie's latest album with Donny McCaslin and Mark Guiliana among others. You said that David Binney, who did the mix and master, urged you to make unconventional choices.
Can you name examples of this. And how did the song NLX come about and what is the role of David Binney in the sound?
David definitely had an influence on the recordings. When I decided to make a jazz project, I tried to write what I thought was a ‘jazz’ sound. David didn’t like it. He told me that my references were too obvious. So I kept composing, probably 90% of it total garbage. But the 10% that I felt good about became Cluster 001. In the recording session, David asked us to forget about jazz-stylisms. A few of the tracks do have a typical dynamic build-up during solo sections, but most of the tracks have solo sections of immediate high-energy. It rocks!
In the post production, an unconventional choice was David’s heavy use of reverbs and delays. Jazz recordings are typically drier. But David went for the reverb ‘wall of sound’ effect, as you hear in the melody of N.L.X.. which makes it sound like a dream. So the album has an odd combination of power, pop, and psychedelia.
Leolo is an award-winning 1992 French Canadian film, the story of which is set in the slums of Montreal.
A movie you grew up with?
Yes, I was touched by Leolo.. and the opening melody of my ‘Leolo’ track reminds me of it. There was a certain Quebecois melancholia to that film, it’s not easy to describe in words. Also, I loved all the scenes of alleyways and sidestreets – it’s a very Montreal thing. I lived in that area of the city for almost a decade. They’re not slums anymore, by the way. Gentrification has taken hold there too.
Ice 911 starts with a nice intro from bass player Logan Kane. The Ice 911 project is about slowing global warming and the melting of the Northern Ice Sheet. Many songs, or at least the titles, express social commitment. The 45th president of the United States seems to have also received a place in the track list according to the title of the song “A Stable Genius”. What's up with that?
Ice 911 has a somewhat ‘Arctic’ vibe. I definitely had a idea of cold night skies, and frozen landscapes… by the way, living in Holland has made me think a lot about shelf-ice falling into the sea. Most of Holland is below sea level. It could become a scary situation in the near future.
A Stable Genius: that title comes from a speech former President Trump made in 2017, where he referred to himself as a very ‘Stable genius’. I thought it was hilarious, and it made a perfect song title. The funny thing is when that song played on a radio station in Princeton University, the listeners started a chat on the radio station’s website and posted a photo of Trump, haha! So some people got it.
I understand that your new music has already been played on American radio stations. How are the reactions so far?
I’ve been played in various stations in America, England, Benelux, and Canada. Maybe others, but I only have playlists so far of these 4 areas. Some of the radio programmers have contacted me personally to tell me that Cluster 001 is one of their favourite albums this year. Ruth Fisher of JazzFm London said it was ‘eclectic’. Pascal Dorban of Radio Luxembourg said that with this album I had ‘ found my voice’. Jerry Gordon of Princeton University, and founder of the famous jazz label Evidence Records, said, ‘Smith’s jazz touched my listeners deeply’. Joe Dimino has a jazz show in Kansas City, and he interview me online for 30 minutes. This week I’m being played on soulandjazz.com, hosted by Bradley M. Stone in California.
Of course I hope this continues. I need all the help I can get to get this project off the ground, and there are so many artists competing for attention in the jazz market.
The album will be available from April 23, 2021. I would like to congratulate you in advance on the debut album. It is an exciting record with a diverse and colorful sound. We hope to see an end to the corona lockdown soon. Presenting an album during a concert is of course the best thing you could want. Of course it would be nice to see and hear you live.
Are there plans to tour with this group (in Europe)?
Thanks fort he kind words, Eddy, I really appreciate that! Yes, for sure, I am already in contact with international agents. Plans are hard to make at the moment, because of the pandemic. But I hope for the best. Maybe next Fall, for sure in 2022. I won’t give up, I have lots of time and energy to invest in this project. The goal is to succeed and become a regular fixture on the European scene. And maybe the rest of the World follows..!
GREG SMITH GS
Greg Smith – drums, keys, laptop
David Binney – alto sax
Vanja Kevresan – guitar
Alex Maksymiw – guitar, synth guitar
Logan Kane – bass guitar
1 My Pet Robot 6:47
2 N.L.X. 5:54
3 Leolo 5:36
4 Ice 911 7:46
5 A Stable Genius 4:17
6 The Closing 4:16
7 Angels & Insects 3:06