Richard Smith and SmoothJazz Europe
Richard Smith - June 25th 2009, Café De Cactus Hengelo (NL)

During his tour in June 2009, performing with a Dutch band (Sietse Huisman - drums, Wytze vd Meer - bass, Tico Pierhage - keys), we spoke to guitarplayer Richard Smith, just before his show at Café De Cactus in Hengelo (NL) on June 25th, 2009. Sitting outside on the terrace, accompanied by the sound of a typical Dutch carrillon, we talked about his career, teaching, writing, his Dutch tour and of course about Smooth Jazz.

Unfortunetely was our videorecording in Hengelo not succesful due to a malfunction. Fortunately Richard played again in Rotterdam, June 30th.

Richard Smith at Dizzy, Rotterdam, June 30th 2009, recorded by

SJEU: Your solo career has been going on for years now but your last cd, L.A. Chilharmonic, as you mentioned is the best one so far. What has been your inspiration?
Richard: About ten years ago I had been playing with almost everybody in the Smooth Jazz genre. I was Richard Elliot's guitarplayer for ten years and did five records with him. I did the Guitars & Saxes tours. I played with Rick Braun and even with Marc Antoine. For all these guys playing as a sideman. I was learning how to do it, but I never got really inspired to make a solocareer, although I had records out. I really didn't think of myself as a solovoice.
SJEU: When did that change?
Richard: Paul Brown actually produced my album First Kiss and he was such a great influence on me because he taught me how to develop my own voice. I went in to a session with Paul thinking we could do half the record in one day but we even didn't do one tune on one day! Because he kept saying: "Try that guitar, try that guitar!" And actually that was exactly what I needed in my career to develop my own voice.
SJEU: Paul Brown is of course a great name!
Richard: Yes and I got him within some big projects and he gave a great deal for five tunes!
So the arc of my career went much more towards making and promoting my own records, and a lot of my time nowadays goes actually to promoting instead of taking gigs.
SJEU: Do you still play as a sideman?
Richard: As a matter of fact I stopped taking sideman gigs specifically when I turned 40. Because I also teach at the university, which keeps me very busy and I want to do my best there!
So that keeps me from going out of town for three weeks on a tour with Brian Simpson etc. But what I learned from all these artists is that they are really focused on their message and their music.
SJEU: But you still like to perform, even over here in Europe!
Richard: I cared enough about playing and even to come to Europe and play little clubs like this one here tonight! The last club I played in the US was a festival that had about 8000 people. So it is a serious steep drop off of attendance and at the same time I feel like we are starting something exciting here and it felt the same 15 years ago when we started Smooth Jazz in the US when I was touring with Richard Elliot and stuff like that.

SJEU: Besides being a musician, you are a teacher as well. Can you tell us something about that?
Richard: I teach at the University of Southern California, which keeps me very busy on one of the top conservatories in the world with Grammy winning collegues (Bob Mintzer, Peter Erskine, ...). I decided to be a good teacher and professor of Music and really forward contemporary music, which is my mission. We just launched our first popular music program with Peter Erskine as head of drums, Patrice Rushen as head of keyboards, and it's the first of this kind in the world at conservatory level. We are going to graduate the first generation, who I think will be the next Quincy Jones and Paul McCartneys. It's that excited!
SJEU: What is specific in the way you teach?
Richard: I won't teach anymore unless I see the look of enthusiasm in the student's eyes. So instead of being a teacher in the conservatory tradition of "Do what I do and you'll be fine", I throw that out of the door and say "What are you excited about? Let's work together!" It is a dialogue. It is completely changed and it keeps me young!
SJEU: Are you teaching overhere? Some clinics or masterclasses?
Richard: Yes I do. Especially the Popacademy in Leeuwarden and I am doing some at the conservatory in Rotterdam, and in Groningen and Utrecht.
SJEU: But it is probably nice also be playing for the young students because then they get involved with this kind of music they have never heard!
Richard: Absolutely, I do a lot of playing. And two colleges, classical music and old skool Jazz, have a completey different paradym. And I think you need to study the old stuff before you study the new stuff. And Smooth Jazz or Contemporay Jazz absorbs so many of the elements from R&B and Hiphop. And because my way of teaching is a dialogue I think my students are the best in the business; they have worked with Snoop Dogg, Madonna, Christina Aguilerra. They engaged the musical world of the present; that's really excited for me!
SJEU: This approach of study and teaching has never been over here. I (Inge) give my students, e.g. twelve year old, easy self made transcriptions like tunes from Chieli Minucci to teach them, and they like it!
Richard: It doesn't have to be complicated to have fun and be interesting. That's what Smooth Jazz is, it's deceptive in its simplicity and it's also very deep. I even did a workshop here at a highschool, my first time, and we had a ball!
SJEU: Are you looking for some balance between your time as a live performer and a teacher?
Richard: I am hoping that that line is incredibly thin. But I have always been amazed how far professional life is away from school life. Teaching fundamentals etc., so that is one of the reasons I am out here touring too. Because I have to teach what I do and I have to be what I teach. The best teachers are those who teach what they do, and that's what I am trying. It is gonna be very interesting as I teach pop music; I start studying pop writing with some great pop writers in L.A. in preparation for me teaching the big third year class. So it's a constant learning experience.
SJEU: Did you have some education about your teaching job, because being a teacher is something else than being a musician.
Richard: Completely! Guitar has never been easy for me, but teaching...I have been teaching for almost twenty years and I am just starting to get an idea how to do it. And now I changed everything up towards a dialogue. But it is the same with music, the more you listen to a student, listen how they play, the better it is. Ears are the fundamentals between teaching and music.
SJEU: Was it logical for you to become a teacher?
Richard: Teaching is sort of a family business. My dad was a professor of architecture, my mother is a professor of history, my aunt was one of the top existentialist philosofer professors.
SJEU: So you had to be a professor as well?
Richard: But to go on, my cousin teaches philosofy, my oncle was head of humanities at MIT! I have eight professors in my immediate family! So it was assumed that I would be professor of something! Smooth Jazz...what the hack!
SJEU: Professor of Smooth Jazz!
Richard: And Jeff Beasley teaches that at Berklee, so we are the only two guys!

SJEU: When do you have time to write songs?
Richard: During my stay in the Netherlands I live in a guesthouse in Friesland. And when I get up in the morning I start working and writing.
SJEU: How is it to write songs compared to playing?
Richard: Composition it the hardest thing to do. Once I met Pat Metheny at a clinic and I was in the middle of a record I was writing the tunes for. And I was talking to Pat about touring, and he did 250 days a year and loved the process of practising guitar etc. And I asked "What about composing, what is exciting?" His whole body language went negative and he said "Writing is hard!" It is really true and I write the most when I am here. I came here three years ago for the first time and everytime I write new songs. I actually wrote two tangos this week!
SJEU: When you write songs, what is important for you to have in the songs? Is it the melody, a specific instrument?
Richard: It is one word "VIBE"! It has to have a vibe, just putting two chords together you won't get the vibe until you get the rhythm together. And as soon as you have them together the tune pretty much writes itself.
SJEU: You write a lot of stuff. Is that always for yourself or for other people or for projects as well?
Richard: It's mainly for me. I write songs that are vehicles for me to play on.
SJEU: And is that for recording purpose or do you try them out during gigs?
Richard: Well actually it is not always for me because a lot of my music ends up on TV or film. The last thing I recorded was for a Domino Pizza commercial. It was a really funny commercial!

SJEU: About the L.A. Chillharmonic project, there are a lot great names in it! Is it some kind of having a band for touring with a fixed line up?
Richard: Well it is semi-fixed. We did five festivals with Greg Adams, Gregg Karukas, Brian Bromberg and Michael Paolo. And when some of them can't make it, Eric Marienthal can come in for Michael, Dan Siegel for Gregg. But that's the line up I like, and the one who did the record. And I am in the middle of all of it, being the musical director. But those guys are always busy and when I look to the stage I think "I got you all together in one place at one time? Good management skills!" But honestly, L.A. Chillharmonic as a concept is Brian Bromberg and myself as the producers. It all very fresh and new.
SJEU: You think you'll ever come over to Europe with that line up?
Richard: Well it's really hard, that's why I have this Dutch band! But maybe someday! But I'm glad, I met these wonderful Dutch musicians. It's not the same as in L.A. but I don't want that to be. Over here it's more looser and more clubby. I write songs and put them in the setlist here; for me it's fun.
SJEU: But for a more clubby performance here tonight, how do you prepare with this line up, other than with the guys in L.A.?
Richard: In this age, you can send mp3's and pdf's and with Sietse (Huisman) being and excellent drummer, they rehearse before. And than I come over and rehearse a couple of times and we start doing the little gigs like this. I also send cd's and have some live arrangements. As I said, it is a little more casual.
But Smooth Jazz artists are more usually good enough to work like this. The first Guitar and Saxes tour I did we had two days of rehearsals with four artists, rehearsing six hours each day. The next day we all flew to Florida and played in front of 40.000 people! So the learning curve is usually very high. Smooth guys are mostly studio musicians and they are competent. So it's a high level, but we still get goofy!
SJEU: But it has to be fun!
Richard: It's the best thing in life, it's absolutely toxicating!

SJEU: Some last thing. We are promoting Smooth Jazz and we like to have more nice performances over here. You play a lot in The Netherlands, so you know how it's around here. Do you have any suggestions how to promote it more?
Richard: In festivals and any places where there are a lot of different people and groups together, it is a good place for Smooth Jazz. It is funky for young people, it is melodic for older people. It doesn't bang you over the head. What I see here is a lot of progressive music, I like rock 'n roll and stuff but I think there is a lot music which is divisive, also straight ahead jazz. In England, when I say that I'm a jazz musician, people would react "Oh, jazz! Really, bother!" But Smooth Jazz is a way of bringing a lot of people with different taste together.
SJEU: In my (Inge) cd I wrote that Smooth Jazz is a bridge for all sorts of Jazz; you can connect people who have never heard of jazz, but because through Smooth Jazz they can learn other styles of Jazz.
Richard: Not just Jazz, Rhythm & Blues too, and Pop!
SJEU: But in the US, a Jazz festival is Smooth Jazz as well! Over here it's mostly mainstream, bebop and fusion!
Richard: When people see the crowd during a Smooth Jazz concert, their opinion will change. Smooth Jazz fans are the most loyal, stay long, drink and eat a lot and it's a community thing! We did something in England and people would say "This isn't jazz, I like this!" And they buy all your cd's and they don't even know what it is!
SJEU: That's exactly how we feel and why we set up our website SmoothJazz Europe. You have the same ideas!
Richard: Well, that's why I am here!

all pictures by Marijn Eland