ENCINITAS — Jay Smith is a classically trained pianist. But a teacher encouraged him to give jazz a try in his late teens. He soon preferred Django Reinhardt over Frederic Chopin. He found inspiration in Art Tatum’s albums.And most importantly, improvisation changed the way he plays.
“With classical it can be almost heresy in a way to change a piece,” Smith said. “Jazz is more about expression or your interpretation. When I started delving into that mindset, my playing really opened up and the nerves washed away.”
Smith’s continuing move in the direction of spontaneity will be on display when the Jay Smith Trio plays cuts from his new album “Unashamed Portrayal” at Mr. Peabody’s in Encinitas Feb. 25 at 9 p.m. Those who are expecting a conventional jazz trio will be in for a surprise.
“There’s a stigma associated with jazz,” Smith said. “People think they’re going to hear Billie Holiday or background music when they go to a jazz show. I really wanted to get away from that and play songs that are beyond what most people imagine jazz to be.”
Smith, 28, appreciates the classics, but he also has an eye to the future. He wants to pick up where more experimental jazz musicians like Miles Davis left off in the 1970s — before the arrival of smooth jazz. “Alegna,” the 15-minute opener of “Unashamed Portrayal,” is certainly ambitious. Smith’s lively keyboard and funk bass lines drive interweaving flourishes from an electric guitar and soulful trumpet, among other instruments that dive in and out of the mix. Other tracks are less sprawling, but a freewheeling mood remains throughout.
Smith has performed with more than a dozen groups throughout the U.S. and Europe. He brought in some of his favorite musicians, including Grammy-nominated guitarist Andre Bush, to record “Unashamed Portrayal.” While he worked on many of the compositions for nearly 10 years, he still chose to keep the studio sessions loose — a conscious decision to get back to jazz’s impromptu traditions.
“I wanted to give some freedom to all the musicians involved and see what their take on my stuff is,” Smith said. “I think we ended up with a better record because of it.”
Smith, who resides in Bakersfield, believes jazz lost an audience because improvisation fell by the wayside, causing jazz musicians to play it safe. And modern music, which once informed artists like John Coltrane, took a backseat to neo-traditional jazz standards. In short, jazz musicians leaned too heavily on the past. But concertgoers can expect Smith to incorporate punk, blues, funk and indie rock into his forward-looking jazz arrangements.
“Jazz has always been about putting improvisation within the confines of popular music,” Smith said. “I want to help continue that in my own little way, in the studio and live. The nice thing about playing with a trio is you can shift music styles on a dime.”
Jay Smith will be joined by Jonathan Winemann on drums and San Diegan Paul Tillery on bass at Mr. Peabody’s.
Many consider jazz to be a dying art, but it certainly has a future in Bakersfield thanks in part to Smith. He’s played at most of the venues in town, and he’s also given lessons for more than 10 years at organizations like the Bakersfield Jazz Workshop.
“Some of my students are doing well now,” Smith said.
“There’s a local band called Colorblind, and they’ve been picked up pretty well. They’re a functioning unit and they’re gigging. That really warms my heart and I’m glad to know I’m a small contribution to that.”
Bakersfield knows Smith, and it’s possible that the rest of the U.S. — and not just the jazz aficionados — will soon too.
“Unashamed Portrayal” can be purchased on iTunes or at reverbnation.com.