Ashleigh Smith - Sunkissed (2016)

Ashleigh Smith
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It’s easy to understand why Ashleigh Smith won the 2014 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. Smith possesses an alluring and hypnotizing alto that makes her believable when performing a sensual love ballad as well as a tune dealing with heartbreak. Smith, like any great jazz singer, also has impeccable phrasing that allows listeners to hear and understand every word.

So, the high level of vocal talent that Smith brings to Sunkissed, her Concord Records debut, was developed in a household and family filled with musicians. Smith studied classical music at University of North Texas, which is where she met the musicians who perform on Sunkissed, bassist Nigel Rivers and guitarist Joel Cross, who co-wrote five of the six original tunes on this 10 track album.

It’s easy to understand why Ashleigh Smith won the 2014 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. Smith possesses an alluring and hypnotizing alto that makes her believable when performing a sensual love ballad as well as a tune dealing with heartbreak. Smith, like any great jazz singer, also has impeccable phrasing that allows listeners to hear and understand every word.

So, the high level of vocal talent that Smith brings to Sunkissed, her Concord Records debut, was developed in a household and family filled with musicians. Smith studied classical music at University of North Texas, which is where she met the musicians who perform on Sunkissed, bassist Nigel Rivers and guitarist Joel Cross, who co-wrote five of the six original tunes on this 10 track album.

Smith describes her sound as “not so much straight-ahead jazz. It’s very much R&B and funk infused.” “Best Friends,” which debuted on SoulTracks earlier this month, stands as the album’s best expression of this fusion between jazz, R&B and funk. Vocally, Smith endows the track with her jazz phrasing while her bandmates bring the elements of Latin percussion and funk and jazz infused horn work to a song about a couple for whom familiarity has bred a prevailing sense of blah.

Smith also channels that relationship gone bad vibe on the strong “Into The Blue,” a mid-tempo number combining a subtle piano jazz swing with funk based horns.

Sunkissed’s four covers will be well-known to most music fans, but none of them will fall into the category of being done to death. Smith’s version of “Pure Imagination,” from 1971 film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, stands as one of the two standout covers for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s the example of Smith looking far beyond the beaten path of cover material – something that I always appreciate. Secondly, the liberties she takes with the track make the tune unique while also maintaining the child like wonder that distinguished the original. Smith does the song a cappella and overdubs herself harmonizing the vocal parts. Smith’s cover of Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile” will likely be a conversation piece for many music fans because the original is loved. Smith opts for a percussive arrangement that gives the number more of an upbeat feel than the melancholy original and that choice seems somewhat disjointed from the song’s lyrics, making this one tune that doesn’t work.

Still, Smith and her collaborators provide listeners with a glimpse of their potential on Sunkissed. There is a great deal to be excited about. As they refine their songwriting we will likely see more original numbers of the exquisite quality of “Best Friends” and “Into The Blue.” But there is little question that with her Concord debut album, Ashleigh Smith establishes herself as an artist on the rise. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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