Like her early hero Nina Simone and contemporary artists like Lizz Wright and Gregory Porter, South Side native Lucy Smith sits comfortably in the place where jazz, folk and soul converge. And like those singers, she has the range and personality to explore those styles, and more, in convincing fashion. She can go down deep into a ballad with her lustrous tones or swing through space to lilting effect. Her band, Autumn in Augusta, featuring longtime accompanists Marcus Evans (drums), Marcin Fahmy (piano) and Joshua Ramos(bass), was inspired by her late mother, a Georgian who exposed her to the ’60s sounds of Simone, folk great Josh White, South African singer Miriam Makeba and pop folk star Trini Lopez. As she revealed on her album, Songs My Mama Would Like, Smith knows how to bring any and all of her influences affectingly up to date.

The Conversation: Songs of Home, a profile of Lucy Smith

And A Proud Mama She Would Be

Lucy Smith comes in many guises: at present she’s music director for Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian’s “Jazz at Four” service, which as you might guess brings a jazz flavor to vintage hymns; she’s been leader/arranger for the Lucy Smith Quartet/Quintet and served as a singer-songwriter for Passing for Normal/Swag. She’s composed and performed music for the feature film Hannah Free and the Wake Up Black documentary and has been music director for projects at the Park West Theater, Goodman Theater and at Steppenwolf Theater, all revered Chicago institutions. In short, through the years she’s been steeped in blues, gospel and jazz. As the leader of the Autumn in Augusta quartet, she brings all these styles together in a short (five songs, a little more than 18 minutes of music) but potent demonstration of empathetic, unassuming instrumental support serving Ms. Smith’s powerful, taut readings of an emotionally resonant program bearing the title Songs My Mama Would Like, “a tribute project for and about my mother and her music,” she writes in her liner note, adding: “It is music I grew up listening to and rebelling against. Now I find my mother and her music are just about everything I do. It turns out that she had pretty awesome taste!”

Yes, she did. But the unpublished subtitle of this EP might well be (But Never Heard Quite Like This). Not that Ms. Smith works radical changes here but you do know something a little different is going on when the band–Marcin Fahmy (piano and keyboards), Junius Paul (bass) and Michael Caskey (drums)–opens the proceedings by introducing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” the Beethoven melody from his Ninth Symphony paired with the poem Henry van Dyke wrote specifically for that melody in 1907, with a little shuffle figure and then breaks into a cool, swinging pace as Ms. Smith’s warm voice follows the arrangement’s rhythmic digressions. van Dyke said he intended this to be a “hymn of trust and joy and hope,” and the light, bright, even playful vocal suggests Ms. Smith intended to follow the van Dyke model in its captivating blend of gospel reverence and jazzy, lighthearted phrasing. The set takes a slightly darker turn in “Wayfaring Stranger,” with Fahmy’s somber, probing piano establishing the setting for Ms. Smith’s heavy-hearted vocal describing her life’s journey “through a world of woe” en route to a Heavenly reunion with her mother and father. As she does on the previous track, so she does here in traversing emotional planes from weary, even despondent lamenting to understated ebullience at the prospect of the life awaiting her “over Jordan.”

Like “Wayfaring Stranger” before it, the Christian hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing” begins with an ominous flourish, via the lone and lonely thump of Paul’s bass, but when Ms. Smith and pianist Fahmy enter the spirit begins a deliberate, steady surge as the lyrics anticipate a day of salvation promised in the Gospel. Given the narrative arc thus far, how then does “House of the Rising Sun” fit into this concept? Deep and bluesy, fueled by Fahmy’s moody tinkling phrases, the tune may be nothing more than one of Ms. Smith’s mother’s favorites; at the same time, given how much she reaches out to departed loved ones in the first three numbers, how telling is the chagrin in her sensitively shaded reading of the lyric, “If I had listened to what mama said/I’da been at home today/but bein’ so young and foolish, my Lord/led a rambler lead me astray…”?  The combo is so discreet behind her, and her delivery so infused with regret, it’s as if the only sound you really hear is a plaintive voice so wounded as to mute the combo’s discreet backing and give the performance an a cappella-like rawness. After all this, the slow, despairing “How Long, How Long Blues,” that old Leroy Carr-Scrapper Blackwell warhorse, actually has a soothing effect, which is not to suggest Ms. Smith’s emotional, grinding attack and Fahmy’s rich, bluesy piano don’t deliver a wallop. But like the rest of his impressive encyclical, it offers a patina of hope amidst misery, which makes it all hurt so good.

If you don’t feel better after listening to Lucy Smith’s powerful vocals on these 5 songs, you never will!  Especially old standards like “Wayfaring Stranger“… what’s most noticeable about Lucy’s voice is that it’s all natural – no hint of being rushed, or afraid – & Marcin Fahmy’s piano/keyboard work is superb – just like church (in a way).  Her vocal on “How Long, How Long Blues” is among the best I’ve ever heard, making it my favorite on the CD.  I give Lucy & crew a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED  “EQ” (energy quotient) rating is 4.98 (very high for female jazz vocals).  

I’ll air it again and again…it’s a remarkable CD.

Lucy Smith's life is singing…in both senses of that slippery little particular verb: she's devoted herself, no matter what else she may do, to jazz vocal renditions of timeless work and, because of that, her existence is a matter of vibrant appreciation for the many graces that have flowed her way, starting with her mother—hence the title Songs my Mama would Like. Smith's voice is resonant and pure, and her grasp of what actually is going on in a song lets her shift each cut's dynamics and spirit to precisely what she hears within its structure. Thus she and her band bring new wrinkles to old standards, and the group itself, we find, is just as insightful as she.

The most arresting cut is Smith's rendition of House of the Rising Sun. I thought I'd never be able to hear that tune again after ten billion covers, but Lucy got it completely right like no one else yet has: the verses tell a deep story, and she invests it with a literary narrative dwelling deep within her. Where once I heard a set of blues chord changes and repeating stanzas of refrain, I now "read" the song like a story out of Faulkner, Steinbeck, or Fitzgerald. That's magical, y'all, and rare even for the innovations of the jazz mode itself because it reaches outside the playbook to shake hands with great brains in other fields……and Songs is a "book" I'm going to read again just as soon as I get this review off to the editor.

This entertaining and all-too short sample of Lucy Smith’s work finds her digging deeply into the roots of black music. Drawing on gospel music as well as the blues, Lucy imbues her singing with a vital understanding of core elements of jazz. Singing with a strong, tough-edged vocal sound, Lucy presents Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You (and Ludwig Van B. never sounded groovier), Wayfaring StrangerHow Can I Keep From SingingHouse Of The Rising Sun, and she closes with Leroy Carr’s How Long, How Long Blues. Accompanied by pianist Marcin Fahmy, bassist Junius Paul, and drummer Michael Caskey, Lucy’s committed take on familiar songs refreshes the music and makes the listener long for more.   This may be Lucy’s first release since 2006′s Movin’ On. Hopefully, there will not be another long wait before the next. Surely there is a label somewhere looking for someone with this kind of voice.

Lucy Smith returns with her band Autumn in Augusta. Songs My Mama Would Like is a stunning (if all too brief) EP tribute to her late mother Julia Ann Smith. Giving credit where it’s due, Smith writes that her mother had “pretty awesome taste!” in music, turning her on to Nina Simone, Mariam Makeba, Trini Lopez and others. Reflecting that, Smith, backed by a trio, applies her warm and heartfelt vocal style to selections by Beethoven (“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You”), Robert Lowry (“How Can I Keep From Singing?”), as well as traditionals such as “House of The Rising Sun.” No doubt her mother would be proud.

In Chicago, singer Lucy Smith is known for her interpretation of songs that have their roots in African American traditions, songs that, like her voice, are inspired by artists like Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, and Abbey Lincoln. When she sings, her voice expresses (in these songs) everything that the Afro-american community has experienced. There are the blues, gospel, and traditional songs that she gives her own unique personal stamp.  It is a voice that is mighty intense and that in five songs she makes her own, and that makes her rendition of the well known House of the Rising Sun practically an entirely new song.  Accompanying her are Michael Caskey on drums, Marin Fahmy on piano and keyboards and Junius Paul on bass.

In the old days we would have called this an "EP", as it is an extended-play disc containing only five songs, totalling less than 19 minutes. Singer Lucy Smith chose these songs as ones that her mother played in Lucy's youth. Chicago-born Lucy says "It is music I grew up listening to and rebelling against". She also says that she used to enjoy playing her mother's records, so I'm not sure where the rebellion comes in. Now, she says, "I find my mother and her music in just about everything I do". Lucy is grateful that her mother intoduced her to such artists as Josh White, Miriam Makeba and Trini Lopez.

The CD has the air of gospel music throughout, starting with a song based on the finale of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, albeit with a slight Latin-American feeling. Junius Paul adds a neat bass solo. Wayfaring Stranger is a well-known folk song, recorded by such people as Burl Ives and Emmylou Harris. Marcin Fahmy augments the poignant atmosphere with his tender piano solo. House of the Rising Sun. with its possible hints about drug-taking, prostitution, drinking or gambling, is an odd song with which to remember one's mother but Lucy delivers it with feeling. How Long, How Long Blues is a standard blues which suits Lucy's voice well.

Lucy Smithy has a deep, warm voice, although its depth can make the lyrics difficult to hear. This is a pleasing CD despite its shortness.

She (Smith) uses her lemonade sweet and fresh voice to bring forth old time spirituals, with clever arrangements all throughout. A chipper take of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” (from Beethoven’s 9th) is a charmer, while “Wayfaring Stranger” sounds quite convincing. A nice step back to appreciate music that is from the heart and soul of America.

Autumn in Augusta’s Songs My Mama Would Like is a love letter in the form of a jazz combo. Vocalist Lucy Smith honors her mother with an extended-play disc, presented by the jazz trio plus singer.

Chiming in at just short of 19 minutes, over five songs, the collection is a simplicity scrubbed repertoire of Public Domain material, presented sincerely and authentically… This music is wholesome and clean. It is unadulterated, completely honest and open. The fact that this is such a brief taste is of no concern, as the music is uniformly fine and just might promise more in the future.

This is a beautifully delicious, but brief sample of great talent.

Autumn In Augusta   4/3

Lucy sings five traditional songs in a tribute to and about her mother. Michael Caskey (d), Marcin Fahmy (piano) and Junius Paul (b) are the trio that has supported Lucy for years and they gel well together. The set is less that 20 minutes but Autumn In Augusta resonates. There is a lot of history and spiritual soul in this set, a short but impactful, earthy session.

Lucy Smith is not only a fine singer by anyone's standards, but she is also a very fine arranger. This little collection shows off her gifts and if anything the single flaw is that the CD is just too short! More, Lucy, More! The pleasures of this kind of heartfelt singing and playing are endless

What a wonderful, musical voice and interesting balance between her voice and music, her heart and her head. Great accompanists too.

A deeply moving album which goes straight to the heart and is just beautiful!

A heartfelt EP from Lucy Smith calling attention to the music her mother turned her on to that started her out on this highway. It’s a passionate set whose feeling leaps out of the bytes at you. Mostly familiar stuff with some curve balls along the way. Lend an ear.

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