Hughes Smith Quintet makes new nostalgia on “Motion”


Hughes Smith Quintet is made of saxophonist James Hughes and trumpeter Jimmy Smith. The two combined with a rhythm section comprised of Phil Kelly, Takashi Ito, and Nate Winn to form the quintet. The group was created in 2012 for the purpose of promoting their brand of Detroit music. Hughes Smith Quintet plays a Detroit brand of be-bop that includes “fresh” tunes, tight ensemble work and swing.

In just a few years, the quintet began to make a name for itself. Their music is played on more than 100 radio stations, and their release, “Ever Up & Onward,” made AllMusic’s “Favorite Jazz Album” of 2015 list. Their latest recording, “Motion” makes their third release. From the sounds of things, “Motion” holds the same promise as the previous recordings.

The sound of “Motion”

It is easy to read too much into the title, “Motion,” especially when a group is from Detroit. The word does not necessarily refer to the Motor City, but it could. However, it might be better to read it as a theme for an album full of swing and old-school style made new.

What is neat about the album is that it is not a series of cover tunes. The songs on “Motion” are original. But without any introduction to them, a listener might think that the songs were from another time. However, there is a freshness to them that makes the songs on “Motion” elegant in a timeless way.

Hughes and Smith play well in tandem and against the solid rhythm section. They excel at both long phrases and short bursts of energetic playing that is the musical equivalent of a zig-zag.

“Runaround” by Hughes Smith Quintet

The song begins with a fabulous upright bass riff that sounds like a rendition of the “Barney Miller” theme song. The strings sound buoyant, almost rubbery, yet heavy with groove. The bass sound mellows out (has it been replaced by an electric bass or a synthesizer? It is difficult to tell.) and the soundscape is dominated by horns. The speed and technicality are dizzying.

Bass and drums are used to signal a new section. Then, the bass is plucked with great aplomb and skill. The drums tap and crash softly just beneath it. A familiar motif made by the horns returns. There is a danceable groove created just before the end of the song and listeners can’t believe the track has ended.

“Gig Fries” by Hughes Smith Quintet

Drums rule the soundscape on this one. Even people who are not percussion aficionados can appreciate the skill and talent brought to bear on this one. The horn section sets the stage, but the drums take over. In one of the best stealth moves in jazz, the short song is suddenly overcome with pounding, shimmering, running drums. Again, the word “dizzying” comes to mind. The bandleaders have made effective use of at least one portion of the rhythm section on this song and the effect is awe-inspiring. Drummer Nate Winn’s technique is no less than masterful.

One listen to “Motion” by Hughes Smith Quintet can convince listeners that the band is onto something with their somewhat nostalgic approach to jazz. The full sound transports listeners to whatever city and time they imagine as the heyday and epicenter of jazz. In just a few years (several), this quintet has managed to enliven jazz in ways that are almost indescribable. To call the album “fun” might be to miss the point. To call it “serious” jazz would do the same, and probably overlook the at times playful arrangements, as in “Runaround.” There is a lot happening on “Motion.” More than likely it will take more than one spin to catch everything.


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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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