Jazz-O-Funk Through a Lyrical Horn with Preston Smith

Preston Smith underwater

The joy is bold and evident when Preston Smith plays the catchy trumpet run that forms the hook of “Meatballin.’” Describing his style as highly influenced by funk, the spirit is brilliant and indescribably danceworthy.

When did you become interested in music?

I’ve been playing music my entire life. I started playing at church when I was little. My first song was “Joy to the World” at St. Matthew Church in San Antonio, Texas. Music has been consistently in my soul my entire life, and a driving force in who I am.  

Was your family supportive?

Yes. My mom was a huge supporter. She did everything she could to allow me to grow musically as a student. My grandma played piano with me when I was a beginner and was a huge music buff. My Grammy and Paw-paw used to listen to old-school big band and jazz when I was young.  

What themes inspire you when you write?

For me, beats and improvisation bring out melodies. I am a melodic improviser, so most of the time I’ll improv over a beat or song to create themes and hooks.  

Where do you go in your head when you play?

I close my eyes when I play and let my mind, soul and emotion do the rest. I find myself more like a singer playing through a trumpet. I used to play vocal lines at church and make up harmonies, so I believe that influenced my approach to improvisation. I tend to take a more lyrical approach than a chordal approach.  

Musical influences across the board?

Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy, Chet Baker, Rick Braun, Chis Botti, Wynton Marsalis and Chuck Mangione. I also have a huge love for horn sections like Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears. That’s one thing that makes me a bit different from other bands is that I’m a horn player with a horn section. I also listened to rap, R&B, hip hop, house music, techno and classical music as a kid. I had a wide range of musical likes. Being in Texas, I love old-school country music as well. I honestly don’t think there is a genre of music I don’t like. I appreciate each genre as its own art form.  

What is the music scene like in Houston today? Has the hurricane impacted your audiences?

I love the music scene here in Houston. We are all family. Each player here is different and brings a different style or flavor to our Houston musical gumbo. There are always going to be people who don’t get along, that happens in any family, but we are still family and need each other to keep our genre alive.

That’s also true nationally. Jazz is a community that embraces its own. The storm brought us together as a community, and started the phrase Houston Strong.

The storm did impact a lot of people. My family is in Rockport, TX and they took a direct hit. It devastated that area. My mom had a lot of house damage and they took a total loss of their restaurant which was their main income. Other family members of mine in Rockport took major structural damage to their homes. Houston took a hard hit as well with the flooding. A lot of people in the storm-affected areas lost their ability to work because of lost equipment, transportation and businesses closed down due to damaged facilities. This all being said, there are a lot of people helping other people, and a drive to rebuild and come back stronger.

How did the title “Meatballin” come about?

It’s an inside joke between me, the co-writer Cory James and a few band mates. I’ll never tell J

Talk about the anatomy of a hook- in that song in particular, how did it come to you?

My MD (Music Director) Cory James and I were at his house playing with some ideas. Cory had the original horn section lick in the start of the tune and I came up with the trumpet melody that followed. The song pretty much evolved from that. Cory is an outstanding writer and truly brings out the best in me as a musician when he writes. My style and his writing really flow, so it makes the process inspiring.  

Is there a tie-in between your love of volleyball and being a musician?

I believe my approach to being an athlete coincides with my approach to music. As a competitive athlete I understand how meticulous you have to be with fundamentals and practice because I had learned it as a musician. To me, practicing shots and skills was the same as practicing a run or etude.

As a coach I stress this approach daily, along with the mentality that you have to watch higher levels of your sport regularly. How can I play a song by Miles Davis if I don’t know what he sounds like? The reality is as musicians and athletes we study the greats to have a base of ideas and approaches to build from. We transcribe solos, and reenact shots, to make our own style of play. You can’t hit a volleyball if you haven’t seen the best hitters in the world, and you can’t approach improv if you’ve never heard the greats.

I love teaching and coaching because these kids are our future. I love seeing students accomplish things they didn’t know they could, and making them better people in the process.  

Talk about the personnel in your band and how you all mesh.

We are family. I would do anything for them, and they would do the same for me. We join as a family over food and fellowship often. We have a large family, because in jazz we can mix and match personnel often, and it just changes the flavor of our music.

I surround myself with phenomenal musicians, and even better people, so every gig is a blessing. They bring the best out of me as a player.  My MD Cory James usually puts the group together pending the style and size of the gig. We range from a five-piece to the full band of 10.

What inspired your latest CD “On the Surface” and how does it differ from your early work?

The 2015 album was a breakout album for me overseas. I had taken a 10-year break from playing professionally, after leaving New Orleans in 2004. “Beneath the Surface” was my first project with the majority of the band that we used in this year’s “On the Surface.” “Beneath the Surface” also had an eye-catching cover shot by my friend Ken Kiefer.

“On the Surface” really brought a lot of attention to me nationally, and continued my support overseas. I had a wide range of musicians involved it, and tried to make it cover several styles of jazz and music. I was blessed to have so many major artists involved in the project. It was truly humbling working with so many fantastic players. It really made the album unique because of the contrasting styles. I also tried to keep the water photo theme with a cover shot by my friend Matt Boise.

“On the Surface” has taken a life of its own by winning several awards including Album and Artist of the Year at the Indie Music Awards in Beverly Hills, it made it on the ballot for the 2018 Grammy Awards, and landed a distribution deal with Innervision records in LA.  

What’s your favorite track on it and why?

I love the whole album. I love how different each song is stylistically.

Have you always been “funkadelic”?

I love funk! I think the horn section work brings out the drive, and my drummer John Fontenot and bass player Cory James make the feel that makes the funk. I actually got to meet and sit in with P-Funk way back in college at a festival in Crested Butte with a band I was playing with called Kung Poa. P-Funk and Karl Denson blew me away with their styles….so funky! 

How do we get Millennials more engaged in jazz- listening and playing?

Keep kids playing instruments and expose them to jazz early. I firmly believe jazz and funk will come back around. A lot of young people I know really like my music. That’s a true blessing because that means I’m on the right track to have young audiences following along with our typical audiences.

This being said, as parents and role models we have to expose our younger audiences to a wide range of music. I also think it’s important as artists to cross genres. Look at Miles Davis and Do Bop. He was crossing rap with jazz….and why not? Experimentation is how this all came about.

Exposing other genres to our sound and vice versa increases our audience.  Another way to look at it is watching a rugby game. When I played rugby, I tried to get other people to watch games with me. Friends would watch for a few minutes and then get bored.  If you don’t know anything about rugby, chances are you won’t watch it because you don’t understand what’s going on in the game. If you take the time to explain the game and what’s going on, then chances are they will get into it and watch it.

Jazz is similar because if someone doesn’t get it or appreciate it they simply don’t want to hear it. The more we educate people on our art form, the more that will seek it out and appreciate it.  

What is the biggest challenge in producing an album today?

Cost. The reality in the industry is that streaming has enlarged our listening audience, but killed record sales. It is a difficult investment because of the minimal return. The reality in my mind is that it’s advertising for your brand and sound, marketing, and you do it because you love it and want to share your music with the world. I didn’t go into this for the money, I went into it for the love of making music with others and sharing it with the world.

The plus side is, the bigger you get, the bigger the gig, the bigger the gig the more albums sell at gigs. Live gigs are a major market for CD sales.

Can you play a trumpet underwater or was that a prop?

I wasn’t playing underwater, but both albums were underwater or on water photo shoots. There weren’t any special effects. The cover and artwork for “Beneath the Surface” were shot with me dropping into a pool playing my horn, and sitting underwater doing different things. It was very challenging to say the least.

My volleyball buddy Ken Kiefer and his wife Kimber did an outstanding job with the photography. “On the Surface” was shot by my volleyball buddy Matt Boise. It was cold that night, and I was freezing in that pool. He adjusted several different lighting angles and we had tea candles floating all around. The final shots were worth it, he really nailed them. The next project “Above the Surface” will be another challenge J 

Favorite venue?

The House of Blues Houston and the Cellar Door Winery in Katy, TX. I host the Saturday Jazz Brunch at The House of Blues here in Houston. I love bringing in different artists every week.

It’s really cool seeing all the different approaches and styles of music that come through. The Cellar Door Winery is our second home. Every Sunday we feature different artists in a solo-like setting. It is an intimate venue, and is perfect for jazz.  Great wine, great jazz, and great food…how can you go wrong with that.  

Place you’ve always wanted to play?

Carnegie Hall. I was a part of a mass choir that performed there with one of my choirs from Louisiana back in the early 2000’s. I would love to have the opportunity to perform on that stage with my own music.  

Most proud of which awards?

Artist of the Year for indie music channel awards…and of course being on the 2018 Grammy Ballot for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album of the Year. It would be a dream to get the nomination this year.  

Current projects?

I just wrapped up a Christmas single. Cory James rearranged “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” It is a huge production and we just finished it. It has horns, strings, vocals, and more!  

Future plans for 2018?

My goal is to complete a new album in 2018…“Above the Surface.”

Other comments?

I’m just very thankful for the people I have in my life. I am surrounded by wonderful family, friends, and supported by a beautiful wife. My music family is exactly that…family. Each person inspires me to play what I play, and all of them make our sound. I am also thankful for all the support from the music industry. Without all the radio DJ’s, my radio promoter, Innervision, my management team, Phaeton trumpets, writers like you, and all the people who support and endorse me….none of this would be possible.  

For more information, visit www.prestonsmithjazz.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Preston Smith. “Underwater” shot (c) Ken Kiefer.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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