First Black Nation
by Albert Brooks
First Black Nation is guitarist Michael-Louis Smith’s second cd and, like his first (Portrait of MLS), showcases this talented musician’s prodigious writing skills. First Black Nation, however, illuminates a different side of the artist – one that in my estimation will add significantly to his profile.
The unifying theme of Smith’s sophomore product is the Haitian earthquake of 2010; and with it Smith, exhibiting a profound sensitivity, presents a very affecting musical-historical paean to this epic tragedy. You cannot listen to this musical homage and not be touched by its beauty, pathos and heart-felt emotionality.
The cd opens with “In The Hot Sun”, a pretty calypso that features fine single-note soloing by Smith and an equally virtuosic turn by Stacy Dillard, who adds some Rollins-esque filigree to his sprightly solo on soprano sax. The joyous mood of this piece is however displaced by the rumbling “Earthquake” effectively re-created by Ismail Lawal’s drum solo. With “Voices in the Rubble”, Smith crafts a hauntingly lyrical portrayal of the devastation and horror caused by the natural disaster. The song is delivered with poignant, variably-pitched outcries by Dillard as an evocative expression of the human suffering; and “Aftermath”, which follows, is a 6/8 threnody of such beauty that its sadness is palpable.
“A Foul Wind”, superbly rendered as a solo effort by bassist, Diallo House, launches into “Mass Grave” with Dillard out front on tenor; but with House continuing to make his strong, resonant presence felt. The grace that Dillard displays in each of these songs confirms that his is the perfect lead voice to give expression to Smith’s musical vision on this project. “Aftershock” again features Lawal and, with “Aftermath Postlude”, we hear a tender reprise of an earlier theme presented rubato this time by pianist, Victor Gould.
The cd concludes with “Haitian Lament” and “Hope” - the former with Smith and Dillard initially sharing unison lines leading into Smith’s distinctive solo, articulating his facile mastery of his instrument. Dillard follows on Smith’s heels with another intervallic star turn on soprano, after which he and Smith return to their lively interplay on this soulful tune. “Hope” offers Smith the last word on the subject at hand, and he delivers a powerfully sublime comment on the resiliency of the human spirit.
The title of this cd, I believe, is a reference to the fact that the Haitian Revolution, along with the American Revolution, was one of only two rebellions before the 19th century to result in permanent independence from a European colonial power; and, as such, it also serves to note our shared kinship with the island nation. The musical acknowledgment that Smith gives to our brotherhood with the Haitian people with this cd is a very, very special tribute that reflects equally well on both his humanity and artistry.
Take note, First Black Nation is vital music and Michael-Louis Smith is a musician to be reckoned with.
Albert Brooks is an Albany area attorney and photographer, whose photographs have been featured in various publications both nationally and internationally. In addition to the foregoing, Brooks takes an occasional foray into concert and cd reviewing