Rick Holland: Paul welcome. It’s a privilege to have you here. My first question pertains to your more traditional roots. Growing up in Davenport, Iowa, home of Bix, you had to be exposed to traditional music. Tell us how this influenced you. As I listen to you more, I hear the traces for sure.
Paul Smoker: Yes, I’m a pretty traditional player in many ways. Some of the musicians who had played with Bix in Davenport were still alive when I was a teen, and some of them became aware of me starting about 7th grade, when word began to get out that there was this kid who could acceptably read, improvise and play jazz. I really wasn’t aware of his importance until later; I was into Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry, Harry James, Harry Edison—and Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Dizzy Gillespie etc. big bands. Also Pérez Prado, Ray Anthony, Jonah Jones.
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It would be hard to argue that acclaimed trumpet player and bandleader Paul Smoker isn't an ideal local-musician-makes-good choice for the 2011 Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. After all, the 70-year-old was raised in Davenport, performed in numerous Quad Cities nightclubs (starting at the tender age of 14), and earned four degrees from the University of Iowa, including a doctorate in music.
Granted, if you were feeling particularly quarrelsome, you could note that Smoker isn't a blues musician, as he freely admits. But while he and his bandmates - the four-man ensemble the Paul Smoker Notet - will be performing at this year's festival in the annual slot reserved for jazz artists, it's not as though the blues is a genre he's unpracticed in.
Paul Smoker can trace his roots back to Berne, Switzerland, where the family name was Schmucker. That means jeweler in German, but there were no jewelers in the family. When the clan immigrated to the United States in the 19th century, the name was changed to Smoker. That means burning jazz artist in English, and there is at least one in the family.
"Paul is an important trumpeter because he is one of the first to combine an interest in experimental new music with killer jazz and big-band chops," says Dave Douglas, one of the top jazz trumpeters in the world today. "For that reason he has been an inspiration to us all."
Trumpeter Paul Smoker is always a joy to hear. Somewhat underrecorded in my opinion, his playing and his sound holds the perfect middle between tradition and avant-garde, between power and sophistication, between accessibility and adventure. Drummer Phil Haynes also has more than 65 albums on his discography, having played with greats such as Dave Liebman, Ellery Eskelin, Dave Douglas, Mark Dresser, Vinny Golia or Herb Robertson, all musicians with superb technical skills, and it's no mystery they chose Haynes to perform with. And obviously Smoker and Haynes performed together too, as is testified here.
The two volumes of Large Music [see discography] feature the music of a co-op quartet with trumpeter Paul Smoker, alto and tenor saxman Bob Magnuson, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi. Grassi remarks in the liner notes that the concept behind this date was to “bring together compatible musicians who are not only great free improvisers, but who are also experienced and first-rate mainstream jazz players with thorough musical educations and a wide range of professional experience.” Grassi was born in 1947, Smoker in 1941, Filiano in 1952 and Magnuson in 1956. They listened to bop as kids and incorporated it and much of what’s happened since into their approaches. Each has a basic style that he adapts to fit into the context of the jazz form he’s playing. These fellows are not to be confused with the young lions, who sometimes play the music of genres that were created before they were born.
Saturday brings the trio led by trumpeter Paul Smoker, making (I believe) their much-anticipated Chicago debut. Smoker, who teaches music at Coe College in Iowa, is a wonder, offering a style that boasts traditional trumpet virtues–a full but malleable sound, along with a powerful, swaggering swing–and an insatiable need for venturesome experimentation.