"I like really hot stuff, and a lot of that stuff from the '40s is a bit too matronly for me," Smith says from her home in San Francisco. "So I'll go to, say, Saks and pick up an evening dress. If you get something classic, it's just classic. You can't argue with something classic."
Smith evidently uses the same credo when selecting her music as when filling her closet. On her debut CD, One Hour Mama, Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers sizzled on swingin' renditions of tunes originally recorded by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Dinah Washington, among others. While Smith's vocals alternately soothed and smoldered, her band, packed with veterans who have shared the stage with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra to Santana (trumpet player Bill Ortiz performed with the Supernatural star at the '99 Grammys), uses dazzling solos and innovative arrangements to make these timeless selections their own. On Miss Thing, Smith branches out for the first time into original compositions, with six tunes penned by herself and boyfriend/pianist/bandleader Chris Siebert popping up alongside well-chosen standards. From the rumba "I've Got a Feelin'" to the slinky "Big Fine Daddy," the first track to receive radio attention, the songs are so expertly crafted that they're virtually indistinguishable stylistically from the classics that surround them. Lyrically, Smith sticks to simple themes because, as she says, "I don't want to be writing any heavy lyrics in a boogie-woogie."
Like most jazz performers with an appreciation of the past, Smith openly confesses to a love of the Kansas City sound, and she says this release reflects that affection. "We wanted to really create a great Kansas City/'40s Count Basie feel," Smith says of her goals for Miss Thing, and she selected her band with this sound in mind. "We play jazz, but I don't wanna hear no jazz player who doesn't know anything about the blues. It's a Basie kinda blues/jazz bag."
In trumpet player Allen Smith (no relation), she feels she has the perfect accomplice. "Oh, he's so good," she purrs, sounding like one of those television-commercial actresses who seem to take inexplicable erotic delight in, say, eating a bowl of rice. "He's a treasure to this country. They're going to love him in Kansas City because he's the perfect Basie guy."
The Grand Emporium crowd loved the entire nine-piece ensemble last fall, when Lavay Smith played a set laden with selections from KC-area artists. Lavay Smith and the Skillet Lickers also took a pilgrimage to the American Jazz Museum, which was particularly exciting for alto saxophone player Bill Stewart, whom Smith describes as a "Charlie Parker fanatic." Stewart has played with several locally based legends during a storied career that culminated in his election into the Jazz Hall of Fame last year, and he used one of these connections to set up a meeting that Smith describes as "one of the thrills of our lifetime" -- an afternoon spent at the home of Jay McShann.
Along with McShann, Smith made some other influential friends during her last trip to Kansas City. "People were telling us, 'You play Kansas City blues better than people do out here,'" Smith says. "Of course, they weren't talking about Jay McShann, but we were really flattered. Some of those people were involved with the Blues and Jazz Festival, so we'll be back in July."
More immediately, she will follow up her appearance Saturday night at the Grand Emporium with a performance at Borders (119th and Metcalf) on Monday, which will allow Smith to showcase her talents (and wares) to a younger crowd. Her efforts to expand her fanbase (Smith plays all-ages shows as often as possible) are evidently paying off, because legions of music lovers have been snatching up Miss Thing as if it were going out of style -- which, of course, all things swing-related are already rumored to have done. Following the stunning success of One Hour Mama, which has sold 40,000 copies and counting, Miss Thing is flying off the shelves and smoking up the airwaves, ranking 12th on the Billboard jazz charts and achieving an astonishing Amazon.com sales rank of 195. (By contrast, the latest Korn record, Issues, is nearby at 159.) "This record is already kicking the other one's butt," Smith says gleefully. "It's selling like crazy. I think the record cover helps."
Smith won't be wearing the alluring outfit from Miss Thing's cover to Kansas City, but she does already have a sartorial idea in mind. "I'm going to need something really glamorous to wear for the Grand Emporium on a Saturday night," she says. "I think I'll wear this salmon, Marilyn Monroe kind of dress that I'm getting made." Fashion does have its price, as such sexy attire limits Smith's mobility. "I don't have a dance thing like Madonna or Britney Spears. I can't move too much." However, she also sees this situation as a way to lead by example, as she doesn't want the dance-impaired to feel out of place at her shows.
"I don't know how to swing dance myself," Smith says. "I have a good time up there just dancing without a partner. I always tell people, 'You don't have to swing dance. You don't have to dress up.' A lot of our fans are guys in blue jeans and white T-shirts. They're music fans that don't necessarily care about fashion. If you don't want to dress up, who cares? Come down anyway. If you do, you know you'll have company with me."
Contact Andrew Miller at 816-218-6781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers
Saturday, June 3at Grand Emporium
Monday, June 5at Borders (119th and Metcalf)