Lavay Smith’s goal is simple: She wants open people’s minds by “introducing them to new old things,” she said.
And by that she means older music, specifically jazz tunes from the ‘40s and ‘50s that will be new to many ears.
Though Smith says she’s performed in Vail before — “it’s a fabulous place,” she said — her concert Thursday night at the Jazz at Vail Square show marks the first time the Vail Jazz Foundation’s brought her to town.
“You’ll love Lavay’s style,” said Robin Litt, the executive director of the Vail Jazz Foundation. “She’s got an incredible voice and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are, well, hot. Lavay’s first appearance at the Vail Jazz Festival will be full of great surprises. Her all-star, seven-piece band will blow you away with their energy.”
The sultry songstress will perform with her band tonight beginning at 6 p.m. at the Jazz at Vail Square tent in Lionshead. And as Litt alluded: Expect a swinging surprise.
‘This music is really hot’
So how did the Red Hot Skillet Lickers get its name?
“People like things hot,” Smith said about the band’s name. “This music is really hot and that’s how we came up with it.”
Founded and led by pianist Chris Siebert, who writes most of the band’s original arrangements, every Skillet Licker (Mike Olmos, Danny Armstrong, Jules Broussard, Robert Stewart, Nat Johnson and Howard Wiley) has an A-list track record of Lincoln Jazz Center performances and recordings with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Qunicy Jones. The band is comprised of four horns (trumpet, trombone, alto saxophone and tenor saxophone), piano, bass and drums.
“You’ll hear a lot of world class arrangements, inspired by Quincy Jones and Ray Charles,” Smith said. “People can expect to hear beautiful harmonies behind my vocals. People will not want to sit in their seats; it’s really fun, but it’s not rock and roll, it’s still jazz and rhythm and blues.”
Snapping her fingers and shaking her hips, Smith belts out her very own, “ruby red lip” and “daddy”-filled tunes and also adds a fresh level of richness to numbers by such icons as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.
When asked in a recent podcast about how enjoyable it must be to woo younger generations into the realm of classic jazz and swing, Smith said, “What I really love is when an old guy who may not be a musician comes to the show and loves the music and says, ‘they’re playing my music. You guys are doing it right.’”
The seven-piece Skillet Lickers in and of themselves are star-studded.
“One thing we’ve set out to do in this band is to have some of the power of a big band but the looseness of a small band,” Siebert said. “To play with this horn section, I think, man if I wasn’t playing with them tonight, I’d be paying to see them. I get to play with my heroes and listen to them solo. How did I get to be so lucky?”
Thanking public radio
Lavay said she’s “always been” singing, but it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she started performing in front of strangers.
“When I was a teenager I lived in the Philippines and started singing for a band for sailors when I was 14,” Smith said. “When I came back to the U.S., I started listening to jazz and blues. I was really rebellious as a teenager and i didn’t accept what was given to me on regular radio. I started listening to public radio; I’d like to thank public radio because it did its job.”
Smith started her own record company, Fat Note Records in 1996. Her debut CD, “One Hour Mama” received widespread critical acclaim and her second CD, “Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing!” received a prestigious 4 and 1/2 Star review from Downbeat Magazine. Her third album, “Miss Smith To You!” contains 12 tunes, including three original songs, and features Lavay’s lush vocals with gorgeous arrangements performed by the band.
She has a new record tentatively scheduled for release in December called “Crazy in Love with Patsy Cline.”
“It was inspired by Ray Charles’ country record,” she said. “Which wasn’t a country record. There’s a lot of jazz and R&B on it.”
Like all of Smith’s music, it may contain new arrangements of old tunes, but for a lot of younger ears, it’ll be brand new, and she can’t wait to share it.
High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at email@example.com or 970-748-2984.