Q&A with…Jazz musician Michael-Louis Smith
NEW CANAAN — Michael-Louis Smith speaks “un peu” — a little — of French, but is fluent with the guitar, ukulele and the piano. The Saratoga, N.Y., native has an album to prove it.
Initially a self-taught guitarist and avid admirer of jazz greats like Nat King Cole and Miles Davis, Smith plays alongside Diallo House, Ismail Lawar and Stacy Dillard in the group known as the Michael-Louis Smith Quartet. Smith, 40, resides in New Canaan with his wife, Christina Saburro, and their 3-year old son, Brave, but goes to New York City for jazz events.
Q: How did you get your start in music?
See him in New Canaan
Live Jazz Night at the Carriage Barn Arts Center in Waveny Park on Jan. 20. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the concert will go from 8:30-10 p.m.
A: Neither of my parents were musicians, They were French teachers, but my brother, Scott, played the guitar and he was in a band, so music was always heard in the house.
Scott was six years older and I followed him around and copied him, but we had different personalities. I took it much more seriously and it slowly became a big part of my life.
Q: When did you decide that music was more than just a passion?
A: I never really thought about it. I had good grades in school, but I wasn’t a great student necessarily. I just loved it and I liked doing it — I was blessed with that.
My parents weren’t supportive either way necessarily; they didn’t push me in any specific direction. It was a bit chaotic because my parents had split up, so it was just my mom and I had a bit of freedom there to do what I wanted.
I would go with my brother to this open microphone night at this legendary cafe in Saratoga called Caffe Lena, where Bob Dylan had performed on Thursday nights. I would go with my brother and after he went to college, when I was 14, my mom would still drop me off. I had some contacts there and people knew me from having gone so many years with my brother. I would play basic folk music and some Bob Dylan tunes.
During that time I got into jazz and I heard of Miles Davis for the first time. I learned how to improvise, and then just took it upon myself to find other musicians, birds of the same feather.
I found a jazz teacher who I studied privately with, though I was self-taught for a while. All the greats that I knew about had learned on the street. I realized that all my friends who I admired were in the jazz orchestras of local colleges, and so I got my associate’s degree in classical guitar at Schenectady Community College, which had a great musical program.
Q: How did the band assemble?
A: There was a jam session at Pedestrian Cafe in Schenectady near Union College. They had a weekly jam session, and so all the jazz musicians would go to play and that’s where I met Diallo House, my best friend.
Diallo was a bass player, and we both loved Charles Mingus, so we ended up knowing the same obscure songs. Diallo suggested we add his friend, Andy, and start this band. It turned out to be the Hot House Jazz Trio in honor of bebop jazz pianist and band leader Tadd Dameron.
Hot House was a bebop cover band. We modeled ourselves after Nat King Cole and Oscar Peterson and some of the great bands. We had a piano, bass and guitar and got a lot of work and did really well.
Q: How did you find your drummer?
A: After I finished in Schenectady College, I came down to Purchase, N.Y. Me and Diallo were at a jazz bar one night and that’s how we met Ismail Lawal, our drummer.
I was onstage playing; we were trying to impress a jazz great, Freddie Hubbard. Diallo was interested in the drummer, and we got his number. We had already been in touch with our saxophonist, Stacy Dillard, who went to the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College with me.
We took Ismail on the road to Albany and our first show together as a quartet was on Jan. 3, 2002. I remember the date because every time I write a new song I write the date, even if it’s last minute.
We’ve been together for about 16 years as the Michael-Louis Smith, or MLS Quartet.
Q: Your album “First Black Nation,” about the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, how did that come about?
A: I traveled a lot to the Caribbean, and though I had never been to Haiti, I knew what it was like to be on an island, and when I heard about the earthquake, I was heartbroken because I knew how fragile the ecosystem was.
I would listen to National Public Radio, and hearing all these stories coming out from the island were heartbreaking and I would pick up my guitar and play whatever was on my mind. I wanted to document this series of songs, and there’s a bit of a story line to this album. Every single musician has a solo, a vignette; there are group pieces and solo pieces. The album came out in 2012.
Q: What are your upcoming projects?
A: We’re going to be recording soon. We have a show on Dec. 27 at the Standard Hotel in the Highline in New York City, and it’s super cool. I’m also in another band called Brooklyn Circle with Diallo, Ismail and Stacy. We don’t perform every week, but it’s a fun gig.
We’re also at Waveny Park on Jan. 20 of next year, and this will be our second time in New Canaan. We played in June there and tried to do it again in the fall, but there were conflicts.
Q: You seem to engage often with the community. How is that?
A: I’m pretty engaged with the New Canaan Public Library and I like to teach. I’m trying to get more music to happen in New Canaan. People need to know how to make it and how it’s created through an organic approach.
New Canaan focuses on school and sports, but we need a focus on music and to keep the musical tradition alive here.