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Body of Soul

With His Confident Debut Album, Singer/Songwriter J-Soul Reveals A Sound With Substance

Christopher Myers
FAST LEARNER: 24-year-old Jammal Smith, aka J-Soul, never sang in public until he was 19.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/16/2005

“I used to carry one of these [cassette recorders] all the time and I would come up with my songs,” says Jammal Smith, aka Baltimore singer/songwriter J-Soul, remembering his early writing process. The 24-year-old Baltimore native settles into a booth at the New Haven Lounge, slowly removing extra layers protecting him from this frigid January Tuesday night. Smith possesses the compact physical presence of a small outside linebacker, but moves with the languid fluidity of a dancer, always knowing which limb is moving next. He looks at the cassette recorder on the table and his lips pull back and let his teeth peek through, one of the many smiles Smith breaks into over the course of an hour talking about his debut album proper, Urban Retrospective, released on Fertile Ground’s Blackout Studios imprint.

“I would take recordings to the guys I was working with, and they would be like, ‘What is this?’” Smith laughs. As his pals in local live R&B group Soul Therapy set up for their weekly New Haven event, Smith bobs his head along to the bubbling jazz percolating through the club and nods at a friend just to say hello. “So I’d have to say, ‘The bass line’s going to be, a-boom-boom-boom-boom. The drums are gonna go like this. And then here it’s going to have some harmonies that go like’”—and Smith lets loose a glimpse of the smooth voice that runs throughout Retrospective—“and they’d be, ‘Oh, OK. Now I understand.’ It took me a while to be able to talk music to musicians in ways they immediately understood.”

Smith didn’t grow up surrounded by music—although he did. He didn’t come up singing in the church and learning how to learn music on the fly, although he did grow up singing and learning what he liked. He didn’t sing in front of people until he was 19, although he and his sister sang the neighbors to sleep as they grew up. He didn’t think about songwriting as his primary creative outlet, but he had to do something with all those words passing through his head. And were it not for the creative soil nurtured at Baltimore’s Fertile Ground’s Organic Soul Tuesdays, Smith might not even consider trying

Smith grew up in West Baltimore, where his father, local artist Alan Smith, first started his music education. Jammal Smith’s hairdresser mother worked late on Fridays and Saturdays, leaving Smith père to take care of Jammal and his sister. “He had to do the Mr. Mom thing, the cleaning, the cooking,” Smith says. “During that time he would always throw on records, some Pointer Sisters, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Sly and the Family Stone, some Roy Ayers, Stevie Wonder, of course, Al Green. And we would just clean the house listening to that, and before long I was singing the songs and I knew all the words and I was only, like, 5. So, if you can imagine, here’s this little 5-year-old singing [Wonder’s] ‘Voyage to India’ or ‘Black Orchid,’ something like that.”

Smith and his sister continued to sing throughout their childhood, building their repertoire with songs heard on their father’s records, but only around the house. When Smith entered Carver Vo-Tech High School, though, he focused on visual arts, not music. It just didn’t occur to him to pursue singing as his creative outlet, even though he was writing things down all the time.

That all changed about five years ago, when Smith first met Fertile Ground’s multi-instrumentalist founder James Collins. Collins encouraged Smith to attend the Organic Soul events, and after a few weeks Smith worked up the courage to read one of his own poems and sing in front of people. “It was liberating,” Smith recalls. “And James, was like, ‘Man you can really write—and you can sing a little bit, too.’ So I kept coming back. And after a while people started liking me.”

Smith started funneling his creative juices into music, self-releasing a five-song demo, Soul Eclectic, in 2001 and another in 2002, Soul Eclectic Vol. 2. Smith liked music-making, but he still felt like he wasn’t doing what he was hearing in his head. “My production got a little better, but it wasn’t there,” Smith says. “And I can remember cats like Raheem DeVaughn encouraging me, James would encourage me, Lafayette Gilchrist. And they were all saying pretty much the same thing: ‘It’s all about the sound. Develop your sound, but you’ve got to decide what kind of sound you want to have.’”

Smith decided to mine his own past to find his musical self. “I went back and started listening to old records, weeks and weeks listening to this old vinyl my father has,” he says. “I always had a natural writing ability, but [listening] was more about different kinds of content and different ways of approaching a song, all the different ways a song could be made.”

As he let his song brew in his head, Smith assembled a production team to work on this next project: Collins, Fertile Ground guitarist Joel Mills, and local producer Ryan Anderson. And during the recording of Urban Retrospective, Smith pushed and teased out his own talent to match the people with whom he worked. “It was more a musical lesson,” Smith says. “How to feel the music. How to feel my way through the music to come up with different harmonies, chord changes, how I wanted to arrange my background vocals. They were patient with me, and we all blended.”

What they blended is a blithely confident and original album without any soft spots, a debut as solid as anything in the Fertile Ground or Urban Ave 31 camps, those other artists from the Mid-Atlantic corridor doing contemporary soul on par with anything else out there right now. Retrospective is an album undoubtedly inspired by classics from the late 1960s and mid-’70s, but which takes those sounds and turns them into a pulse in step with now. The love-gone-wrong midtempo elegy “Such a Shame,” pushed along by the usual subdued bass line and drum kick, moves out of the slow-jam introversion into kiss-off catharsis by a space-age splash of woozy keys flying through the backdrop, with Smith sweet-talking his soon-to-be ex before laying into the “too blinded by your own bougie ways/ to even see what was going down/ caught up in he say, she say blasé.” A swampy Billy Preston keys-dance paints the kaleidoscope backdrop to “Who Are They,” an uplift song—“life’s about choices/ ignore the negative voices”—that rides a cavalcade of intertwining instrumental and vocals ribbons instead of the usual lyrical sentimentality. And the Latin-powered “I Wanna See” starts off in a jazzy rush of percussion and slowly morphs into a jittery backdrop for Smith’s multitracked vocals.

Since Retrospective’s late 2004 release Smith has put together a live band—India Reed (guitars), Fertile Ground saxophonist Craig Alston (keys), Mills (keys), Daniel Bennett (bass), and his brother Aaron Bennett (drums)—and they’re already in the studio again working out new material. And taking the old in bold, new directions. “I always go with people who are just as creative as me, because I don’t want my stuff to sound mainstream,” Smith says. “Not just because I want to be different or I want to be artsy-fartsy, it was all about an alternative. I want to come up with a style that was not like anybody else’s, a mixture of a lot of things, but still beautiful.”

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