Q&A with Enoch Smith: Rebuilding Houston

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Pianist, singer and composer Enoch Smith Jr. feels a special kind of camaraderie for Houston, the people there and musicians from The Bayou City.

(Photo: J. Gabriella Smith)

Even though pianist, singer and composer Enoch Smith Jr. grew up in Rochester, New York, his heart belongs to Houston.

It was while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston and befriending Houston-native musicians—tenor saxophonist LaQuin Lay and trumpeter Lance Ballare—that Smith’s love affair with The Bayou City sparked.

“Those are a couple of guys that I really connected with,” Smith said. “We would always hang together and talk about music and life. Later on, after I moved to New York City, I met [drummer] Reggie Quinerly. By that time, I’d gotten a chance to meet quite a few people from Houston. It seemed like if I had to move to another place or could be from another place, it would Houston.”

So, it’s understandable that when Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on Houston last year, Smith was heartbroken. The total damage from the storm is estimated at $125 billion, according to the National Hurricane Center, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in United States history.

As he watched the devastation on television, Smith initially felt helpless. But he then conceived of the idea for the heartfelt benefit album, To Houston With Love. In coordination with Angel by Nature—a Houston-based nonprofit founded in 2008 by hip-hop artist Trae Tha Truth that aims to improve the living, health and educational conditions for Houston’s less-fortunate—all proceeds from the album will go to ongoing relief efforts for hurricane victims.

“I really developed some strong friendships with a lot of guys who came up from Houston, who ended up in Boston with me. So, this tribute is just a natural thing,” Smith said.

Slated for an April 9 release, To Houston With Love finds Smith leading an estimable ensemble that includes Quinerly and Lay along with bassists Jordan Scnaella, Vincente Archer and Gabriel Vivas; trumpeters Carlos Nwankwo and Antoine Drye; saxophonists Matt Parker and Myron Walden; trombonist Corey King; and singer Estee Bullock. Opening with a poignant reading of the gospel staple “Wade in the Water,” the disc finds Smith channeling both his jazz and church roots on such moving originals as “Drown,” “Love Callin’” and “Take Me Home.” It also features a gripping reading of Quinerly’s “Freedmantown.”

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk about your affinity for Houston or musicians from the city.
I’ve always been open to a lot of different cultures. By far, the Houston culture was just something that blew me away. I met a couple of guys from Houston during my first semester at Berklee College of Music. I was just taken aback by their demeanor, their sense of swing and the overall vibe of their musicianship. I’d never heard of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. To meet some guys who had gone there and to hear about how much of a quality program that it is, then get to this other side of life of Houston—being born there or having struggled in Houston or dealing with the flooding in Houston—I hadn’t experienced any of that kind of stuff.

Maybe during my second year at Berklee, I remember talking with a musician from Houston about his home being flooded and losing his car to the flood. To me, it was mind-boggling. It was a cultural shock for me, being an 18-year-old college student.

How did you put together the band for To Houston With Love?
Around the time Hurricane Harvey was on the news, I just felt helpless. I wanted to do something. I thought, “I know there’s something that I can do.” But I didn’t have much money. And I couldn’t go out there. It just donned upon me to use the gifts that I have. To really get at the heart of what was going on, I wanted to pull in people who had experiences with flooding in Houston first-hand, so I called up Reggie. He thought it was a great idea.

From there, it was really about [figuring out] who we were going to use. So, we decided to get some other musicians from Houston. At first, we wanted to call everybody we knew from Houston. But a lot of these musicians like Robert Glasper or Jason Moran are fairly busy. And we didn’t want to get into a situation where we were waiting for people to be available so much that the idea and momentum would suffer. We also didn’t want to make it more about the musicians than the cause. So, we went back to the drawing board and said, “Maybe we can shoot for a lot of A-list musicians. But what would really be great is for us to put out an ‘all call’ and whoever can make it shows up.”

How and why did you coordinate your benefit efforts with Angel by Nature?
We were looking at many organizations that had avenues for helping people—the Red Cross, Catholic charities, the Salvation Army, you name it. But from working in legislation and in local government, I realize that a lot of people who need help don’t get it through certain avenues for various reasons. So, we were really looking for an organization that was on the ground that didn’t have huge overhead and that wasn’t trying to buy its team new vehicles and all of this infrastructure. We were looking for an organization that was giving the stuff to people who needed the help.

So, through the internet I just stumbled across Angel by Nature, which has this subsidized initiative called the Relief Gang. It’s specifically for people who are trying to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. I saw that the organizers were driving to people’s homes, bringing them supplies. So, Angel by Nature felt like the perfect fit.

For more information about the project, visit Smith’s website. DB


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June 2018
Mary Halvorson
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