Sean O'Bryan Smith
Sean O'Bryan Smith
Official Biography (courtesy of Sean O'Bryan Smith)
One could state that the bass is the soul of music. Its rhythm, timbre and tone are the heartbeat, essence and lifeline of a composition. A versatile voice who has provided the backbone for a variety of hit-makers and multi-genre chart-toppers as a first-call sideman, bassist Sean O’Bryan Smith steps out on faith to deliver an inspired collection of gospel jazz tunes on his second solo album, “Reflection,” a wide-ranging, hallowed offering of hymnals and songs of worship presented as contemporary jazz instrumentals, funky R&B grooves and sophisticated pop. Smith produced and arranged the dozen songs, nine of which are fresh renditions of timeless church evergreens and gospel hits.
“It was bold to do an inspirational jazz record,” admitted Smith, “but for me ‘Reflection’ is an album of transcendence. It was fun mixing it up stylistically for all these styles are part of me. Since I only composed a couple pieces for the record, I accepted my primary role as arranger. While diverse, I think the body of music makes a cohesive statement. It is focused and a much more commercial album than my first solo record (‘Tapestry’).”
Released in 2008 on his own Groove Therapy Records label, Smith composed all the material on “Tapestry.” “Initially I thought of myself as a composer, thus ‘Tapestry’ was never meant to be a commercial release although it sold over 8,000 units. I just wanted to play with a lot of my favorite sidemen and sell the CD at the many bass clinics that I lead.” Guesting on the record were 32 musicians including Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Jerry Marotta, Ken Rarick, Rich Eckhardt, Teddy Andreadis and Glenn Williams.
While touring to support “Tapestry,” Smith began composing material for his sophomore disc, which he envisioned to be comprised entirely of originals. “As we geared up for the new album, I played at my church on Sundays while in between tour dates. I started listening to the hymns and worship tunes, and thought it would be fun to arrange some of them for an EP. Through the course of arranging the songs, I started composing some new material that fit the inspirational motif. It became apparent that this body of music was going to be my second full-length album,” recalled Smith about the genesis of “Reflection,” which was in conception for three years.
After the songs were arranged, Smith contemplated the type of production, sound and style he wanted for the recordings, which were tracked in his Nashville studio. “I wanted to anchor the material in soul music, which is my roots, and I wanted it to have an underlying feel reminiscent of an old STAX album. We purposely went for a lot of older tones and we mixed everything through an old Trident analog console to give it a different sound. That was an ambitious decision, but it gave the tracks just the right touch. The end result is an album that offers people a slice of nostalgia while taking them on a trip through gospel and contemporary jazz.”
As a respected, in-demand session player, Smith’s Rolodex is thick with first-rate musicians. Twenty-three acolytes were quick to join the processional. Smith helmed the production with co-producer Rich Krainak. He said humbly, “One of the most inspiring aspects of the recording process was the number of artists that flocked to support the project. Legendary artists like Randy Brecker, Chuck Loeb and Gerald Albright established the foundation. Grammy nominated sax player Frank Catalano, guitar icon Jack Pearson, platinum-selling songwriter/pianist Jeff Franzel, popular New York vocalist Lisa Hearns and even international superstar/actor/spoken word artist Malcolm Jamal-Warner contributed to ‘Reflection.’”
Starting in a celebratory mood, Smith’s rambunctious bass plucks the lead melody shadowed by Shannon Wickline’s stirring church organ on “How Great Thou Art.” “When you work with songs that have been around forever, it’s important to try to avoid clichés. We opened the album with a dose of power funk right out of the gate. It has the feel and energy of a live track and most of the album was recorded live. As producer, I let the musicians do their thing…bring their own unique magic to the record,” explained Smith.
In Smith’s hands, “Blessed Assurance” becomes a soul tune that would be at home on adult contemporary radio. “I took the most liberties with this one. It’s heavily STAX influenced. To me, what makes it special is the interplay between the musicians,” he said. Comforting, the laid back groove cuddles a warm bass melody, Franzel’s eloquent piano musings and soothing sax licks from Tommy Ogle.
Smith approached his bass-work on the somber, contemplative “Mighty To Save” as an orchestral piece. “’Mighty’ was one of the first tunes we cut when I was originally planning to do an EP. I wanted to showcase some of the more advance bass-work on this track.” Smith’s bass melody is echoed by Whit Stiles’ electric guitar amidst expressive piano and organ noodling courtesy of Wickline.
Smith toured with Rebecca St. James, who had a hit with “Blessed Be Your Name.” “Recording it for ‘Reflection’ was a no brainer, but I wanted to put my own flair on it. I made it fun and funky.” Loeb’s spirited guitar and Wickline’s roof raising organ blasts spark the first single serviced to radio. Rhythmically, Jeff Hale’s go-for-broke drumming forms an air tight pocket with Smith’s bass groove.
While in New York City to shop the “Reflection” demos in 2010, Smith caught a set at Steinway Hall by Hearns at which she performed the Franzel original “Me Without You.” Moved, he wanted to record the aching torch song. They cut it the following week using only piano and six-string bass accompaniment. Smith stated, “Originally it was a secular tune, but I asked Jeff (Franzel) to read the lyrics again. It totally fits the theme and concept of this album.”
Another original tune, this one authored by Smith, “Called” gives voice to Albright’s reassuring sax. Stiles’ electric guitar shreds throughout the invigorating contemporary jazz affirmation. “For ‘Called,’ I wanted to take what I did on ‘Tapestry’ to a higher level,” offered Smith.
He continued, “I grew up with ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ as a bluegrass number or an old gospel tune, but my version is a mix of various styles that all seem to gel.” Smith & Company convert it into a shuffling Dixieland march. It detonates midpoint into a straight-ahead jazz jam tethered to Catalano’s swinging sax. Pearson’s slide guitar glorifies Smith’s bass oration.
Brecker’s prayerful trumpet provides a personal affirmation on the melodically meditative “Give Me Jesus.” “One of the high points was getting Randy (Brecker) onboard,” the bassist says.
A gospel classic penned by Andre Crouch, “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” presented Smith with the opportunity to be particularly audacious. “Can a bass player do a full choir and get away with it?” he pondered with a chuckle. The bass prophet presides at the pulpit delivering rousing sermons as a celestial choir (Calvin Nowell and Chloe McGoogin) testifies.
Smith and his touring keyboardist-vocalist, Gary A. Brown, decided to record the vocal number “Yes You Have” after the bassist performed it at church. Smith’s five-string bass is particularly gregarious, firing fast and furious flourishes on the love song of faith, loyalty and devotion.
Under the helm of Bill Bachman, a 4-bass drum marching band drum line rips the revelry in a celebration of spirit on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as lavish horns fire up the praise on the track that dishes tastes of New Orleans and South Africa. “Oddly enough, it was my mother’s idea,” laughed Smith.
Recorded by candlelight, Smith composed the music for the title track, a powerful and contemplative bass, B3 organ and spoken word piece that closes the collection. His probing bass invites a soul-searching journey, an honest introspective rumination on self-love and surrendering to faith. “Malcolm’s (Jamal-Warner) story is similar to my own. His lyrical testimony is universal and it encompasses where I came from and where I’m going as I walk this path,” Smith revealed.
Smith grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee with a mother who was a professional jazz and blues singer. As a child, he laid his head on her lap while she played piano enabling him to “feel” the notes. He picked up the bass at age 12 and cut his teeth listening to old soul records from the Motown and STAX catalogues. “I started off as a soul guy and was heavily influenced by bassists like James Jamerson (Motown) and Duck Dunn (STAX),” Smith recalled. In the early 1980s, he discovered contemporary jazz and rock fusion and studied the work of bass players Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller. The self-taught musician landed his first gig as a pro at 15 when he played in his high school band director’s band.
Upon his high school graduation, Smith moved to Seattle, which at the time was a hot bed for contemporary jazz and fusion. Bassist Vail Johnson became another one of Smith’s key influences. After moving to Nashville, Smith began playing studio sessions for hit songwriter and producer Monty Powell. This lead to recording dates with Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Anna Wilson, Darius Rucker, The Oak Ridge Boys, Larry Carlton and Rick Braun. Smith toured extensively during Billy Ray Cyrus’ peak, which generated live work with Rascal Flatts, Kenny Rogers, Wynonna, Esperanza Spaulding, Victor Wooten, Brian Bromberg, amongst many others, further propelling the bassist to become a premiere sideman. “I’ve been blessed to play with the greats and learn from them, which helped encourage me to step into the spotlight on my own recording career,” Smith reflected.
Smith played church gigs for years, but after a nasty divorce followed by a fresh start with his second wife, Jami, he began his spiritual quest in earnest. “Finding my path and growing spiritually…it’s a gift that was given to me and I need to pass it on. If we can get secular markets to embrace this album (‘Reflection’), we’ve really done something.”
In addition to devoutly promoting “Reflection,” Smith is a member of two new jazz groups: Thunder-Smith-Taylor boasts legendary drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith (Mahavishnu, Santana) and Grammy nominated guitarist Joe Taylor, and Polcat, a jazz fusion outfit made up of Catalano, guitarist Chris Poland (Megadeth, OHM) and drummer Jim Gifford.
Grounded and centered, Smith strives to make music with meaning at the highest level. “Reflection” provides a complete picture of the artist - past, present and a glimpse into the future – a musical missionary aiming to uplift, enlighten and inspire. “I feel blessed that people can hear what I’m about and hear where the music is going. I hope to give something fresh to this genre. ‘Reflection’ is not only a tribute to great hymns and worship tunes, but also a tribute to where I've come from as a musician and where I'm heading as an artist and a man of faith. All of the music that inspires me is present on this project along with a few surprises. My greatest hope is that people will enjoy the music and feel some of the inspiration that I feel.”