Matt Munoz

Wednesday, Oct 12 2011 04:19 PM

MATT MUNOZ: Keyboardist jazzes it up everywhere

By Matt Munoz

If there's one thing keyboardist Jay Smith can't stand, it's a happy jazz record.

Not content with the musically conventional -- be it style, sound, or technique, Smith and his keyboard have been heard on every stage and hotel patio in town since his arrival six years ago. He's a familiar face at the weekly Bakersfield Jazz Workshop, where he acts as lead instructor, and he's bounced through a host of local groups, including Kelulu and Bunky Spurling's band, in addition to backing jazz singers Kama Ruby, Candace Freeman and Lawanda Smith.

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After cutting his teeth with those notable talents, Smith is anxious to get his share of the spotlight when he previews tracks from his upcoming CD "Unashamed Portrayal" Friday at The Nile. Though Smith originally planned the set as a standard trio recording with the usual round of A and B sections before opening up for solos, he said listeners are in for a surprise.

"I think it's kind of an eclectic mix of my past and present," he said of the CD, still in its final phase of mixing. "If I were to describe it, I would say it's a continuation of what Miles Davis was doing in the '70s, along the line of "In a Silent Way," and "Bitches Brew," that's kind of my thought about it -- something that's in the jazz idiom, but also accessible to the average person."

If three of the CD's eight tracks available for preview are any indication, Smith's plan to usher back in the psychedelic years of the late trumpet innovator are well on their way, give or take a few bumps.

On "Alegna," the song's nightmarish abstract intro builds before segueing into an in-the- pocket funk romp, courtesy of bassist Jay Hicks and drummer Jonathan Weinmann, who stir up a fury behind the free play of Grammy-nominated guitarist Andre Bush. Saxophonist Chris Nguyen, trombonist Joe Vazquez, and trumpeter Mark Manda follow before Hicks and Weinmann return for the final resolve. Leading the band is Smith on keyboards, pouring on the equally funky layered Stevie Wonder-ish synth groove. It's raw, loose and at times exhausting at 15 minutes, but, according to Smith, just a facet of his overall vision.

"I tried to leave a lot of space to allow people to bring something to the recording," said Smith. "I didn't tell them what to play. I just gave them ideas."

The sampler's other two tracks -- "The End" and "Static" -- offer more of the same, but with some adventurous arrangements.

The record was engineered and mixed by Bakersfield musicians Jason Grooms and Mike Montano Jr. Smith's next move is to ship the CD off to Hollywood for mastering at Capitol Records with help from monies raised through a successful fundraising campaign at entertainment website Kickstarter.com.

"I'm already pleased with how it sounds right now and hoping to have it completed by the end of the year."

For Friday's show, which also lands on his 28th birthday, most of the CD's musicians will be in the house, including bassist Fernando Montoya and percussionist Nunzio Urbina. Vocalist Cara Bruce will stop in for a few numbers. On the set list will be "Unashamed Portrayal" in its entirety, plus an extra set of standards and inventive reworkings of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," two songs Smith defends for not being typical jazz offerings.

"I think jazz is becoming an afterthought, something to enjoy wine or dinner with as opposed to being a show. So many musicians are so conservative in the way that they play now, they lose the audience. If people wanna say I'm wild and energetic, then I guess that's along the lines of what I wanna keep on doing."

You go, Jay.

Friday's downbeat is 8 p.m. Admission is $10. The Nile is located at 1721 19th St. For more information call 323-8575 or visit jaysmithgroup.com.

Finnigan releases debut

Not as boisterous as Smith, but equally talented is Daniel Peterson of solo indie electro act Finnigan. He just released his brilliant debut, 'Athletics,' last week.

The 25-year old singer songwriter has crafted something truly unique, writing and performing all the material himself. An ode to '80s new wave in the tradition of early Depeche Mode, it's as timely as anything happening in today's electronic music scene, most easily comparable to Canada's Crystal Castles.

"I like a lot of '80s music," he said. "I was just having a hard time finding a sound that wouldn't be so dancey, but still have an alternative rock feel."

According to Peterson, the concept of "Athletics" is to keep up with the ongoing adventures of Finnigan, a rabbit-headed character he says is loosely based on his own life. In the CD's artwork, he's depicted as a rabbit-headed man, running away from a dark fortress. On each side are two female faces and bats flying through a purple moon. Sound like a twisted fairytale? Peterson says it's close.

"I tried to paint together this storyline of Finnigan, who's an athlete. He's stuck in this place with these women and doesn't know if they're real or ghosts. Maybe in another project, he'll be something else."

Without going into the obvious Radiohead and Beck comparisons, there's a lot to like about "Athletics" -- it's catchy, moody, and the artsy packaging make it a satisfying fall music entry. Currently, Peterson is working on putting together a band to perform live, but until then you can download his music at Cdbaby.com, or keep an eye out when "Athletics" becomes available at iTunes and Amazon.com. You can also find he and his rabbit-headed alter ego at Facebook. Bravo, Finnigan!

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