Luke Smith – tour (dates at Pizza Express Holborn 7/8 August)

Keyboard maestro Luke Smith performs with some of the biggest stars in modern music – a recent highlight included accompanying Cat Stevens at Glastonbury – yet he owes some of his formative musical education to the vinyl jazz he borrowed from a library in Longsight, Manchester. Smith, who is planning his own new solo album and is about to embark on a mini-tour that includes two sizzling nights at the PizzaExpress Live in Holborn (7 and 8 August), told London Jazz about how he first got into music… Martin Chilton writes:

Luke Smith wearing a purple velvet suit and hat singing sat at the piano
Luke Smith. Photo credit Monika S Jakubowska

“I started on the bongos at a church in Claremont Road in Rusholme, Manchester, and then went on to drums, before gravitating to the keyboards,” he recalled, in a zoom interview. “One of my school teachers told me in order for me to grow as a musician, I must learn Jazz. I then went to Longsight Library which was my local to rent out some records.

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“The first record I got was Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, at the time my ears hadn’t developed yet, so it was too intense and I didn’t understand the music. I brought it back to the library. My teacher mentioned maybe try traditional Jazz so I went back and picked up an Oscar Peterson live at the Montreux Jazz Festival album, which was also too advanced for me. I went back a 3rd time and picked up a David Sanborn album and a Grover Washington Jr album which made musical sense to me, reminding me a little of the gospel music I grew up listening to as the melodies where very strong. This would become the backdrop of my career and help my writing to be melody focused.”

Smith was born in Manchester, his mother Ophelia is a gospel singer and his Jamaican-born father Vassell, a Windrush arrival, played guitar. The young Luke also grew to love George Duke, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock – whom he describes as “some of my favourite musicians on the planet” – and gradually developed a wider palette, as he worked on his own sound, a melody-based one heavily influenced by Gospel music, Reggae, R&B, Pop, Rock as well as Jazz.

His forthcoming track ‘Lockdown 2.0’ is an enthrallingly funky song, with a honed melody. When I suggest that there are echoes in it of the hugely talented 1970s group The Crusaders, Smith laughs and replies, “Wilton Felder [saxophone and bass] and Joe Sample [keyboard player] are two of my heroes and you will hear them in my music. There are definitely traces of The Crusaders in ‘Lockdown 2.0’. I called on Andrew Ross, one of the top saxophone players in the country, who works with Incognito, to play on that track. We go back as teenagers in Manchester, when he studied in Salford University, and we were both really into Wilton Felder. Having Andrew on the track made my job easy, as he understood  what I was looking for and  he absolutely nailed it.”

‘Lockdown 2.0’ is a tribute to the late great bass player Joey Grant, who died late 2022, aged just 36. You can hear Grant’s rich interweaving bass lines on the track, which was co-written by Smith, Grant, drummer Josh ‘McNasty’ McKenzie and guitarist Charlie Allen. “Joey is probably one of the most important bass players of his generation and a lot of people don’t realise it,” says Luke. “Joey suggested ‘Lockdown 2.0’ for the title, and we all said, ‘that’s a great name’. The release date is on what would have been Joey’s 39th birthday.”

Smith remains a hugely in-demand session musician, with a sparkling CV. Among the musicians he has performed and recorded with are Roy Ayers, Hugh Masekela, Hot Chocolate, Jimmy Cliff, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bonnie Tyler, Chaka Khan, The Sugarbabes, Emeli Sandé, Miss Dynamite and Stormzy.

One of his most high-profile longstanding collaborations was as keyboardist in George Michael’s band. Luke was also a part of history playing in that band as he was the first artist to play the new Wembley Stadium to a staggering 80,000 sold out crowd for two nights in 2007. “We had conversations about music,” Luke says, “but we also talked about politics and other things. George was a very rounded guy and would talk about a lot of different things at the dinner table. Musically, I learned a lot from him and saw that greatness at that level is not necessarily about fluking it. It is all about intention. Everything I saw George Michael do had a thought process and plan behind it. He knew what he wanted to do and was a pioneer to the end, always pushing the boundaries. The great musicians do that. I’ve played a lot with Cat Stevens recently and I see a similarity, in that they are both forward-thinkers who have a vision and they see that vision through.”

One of Smith’s most pivotal musical moments was playing with blues legend B.B. King and Eric Clapton, on a version of “The Thrill Is Gone” for King’s 2005 album B.B. King & Friends: 80. How did that come about? “Billy Preston was meant to do the session, but he was really sick,” Smith explains. “B.B. King’s team asked for suggestions for a Hammond player and three different people gave my name. When I got there, a guy came up and said, ‘Hi, I’m Eric’… and it was Eric Clapton. Then B.B. came in with an entourage. He was a larger-than-life truly charismatic character. It was such an honour. I had B.B. King on my right and Eric Clapton on my left, it was a very memorable session.”

Luke, who describes his own dyslexia as “a gift”, is a multi-talented, creative man. He also teaches masterclasses in music and is an accomplished songwriter and arranger. As a composer, producer and musician he worked with the late Amy Winehouse on her 2003 debut album Frank, on the songs ‘Take The Box’, ‘What it is About Men’ and ‘You Sent Me Flying’. “The record label said Amy had a couple of songs that needed some work. I added my musical creativity, changed things around in the chorus and added to the lyrics  she had already written, and the label loved it. My background of gospel music meant that on ‘Take the Box’ as I heard harmonies I was able to utilise what I learnt from studying the greats in gospel music Edwin Hawkins, Andrae Crouch and The Clark Sisters to name a few.”

Since working with George Michael and Amy Winehouse, Smith has transitioned into a highly respected solo artist, something he has achieved during the intensely challenging pandemic years. “Covid nearly took me out,” he says, in a matter-of-fact tone. After getting ill in January 2021, whilst he was in America, he returned to London on 1 February. “By the time Boris Johnson closed the country down, I was feeling ill. The following week, it got so bad I called the ambulance. It took three hours for the ambulance to come, because there was a shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment], and I was in a lot of pain. As soon as I left the house, I couldn’t breathe and began panicking. I was then on an oxygen machine for six days.”

How did such an awful experience affect him? “At the point when I was most ill, in a near-death situation, you ask yourself, ‘what is your legacy and what have you done with your life? Have you been a good steward of your life?’ I had been working on an album and finished it in 2018 and had not been sure how to release it. When I lay on the bed breathing oxygen I thought about my album, no one had even heard it! I vowed to myself that if I made it out of the hospital, I was going to put my own music out,” Smith says.

His debut single, ‘Travelling’, was a No.1 hit on the iTunes Charts and he has since released six singles, including ‘The Resurrection’ and ‘It’s Time’ featuring the legendary Roy Ayers. Smith is working on a new album, provisionally called Going Home, which he will support with a longer tour. He’s well placed to offer a verdict on the difference between playing in front of a huge stadium crowd and performing at classic small venues such as Manchester’s Band on the Wall (where he plays again on 22 September) and London’s Ronnie Scott’s and Pizza Express clubs. 

“Sometimes the bigger the venue, the more people, the more you are detached,” he says. “At the Pizza Express, for example, you are only a few feet from the audience. You are really exposed and there is no time for gimmicks. The audience captures the magic in real time. You look at the faces of the audience and you feed off their excitement, and that pushes you to push again. For me, big venues are great and prestigious and good for the ego, but I really like the smaller venues, because they make you play.”

Smith says that, as the frontman, he enjoys interacting with the crowd. “I try to get a feel of where they are at. I like to educate them and celebrate the musicians that play with me as they are all world class. I like them to hear my thought processes, which is part of the story.”

For the Pizza Express gigs, his band will include Jerry Brown (drums), David Mrakpor (bass), Charlie Allen (guitar), Andrew Ross (sax) and Sid Gauld (trumpet).

Along with special guests vocalist Joy Rose from the group Incognito (“she is a power house and will have you mesmerised”); vocalist Gavin Holligan, a new artist but who has made big waves recently on Jazz Fm with his music (“he definitely will be around for a long time”); Kwame Yeboah, a multi-instrumentalist genius; and not forgetting the amazing guitarist Joon Switon.

The London audience will be treated to a version of ‘Lockdown 2.0’, a tune that carries such strong meaning for Smith. “I’m so grateful I recorded this track, otherwise we would not have documented the genius of Joey playing the bass. Sometime in the future the young kids Joey left behind can watch his beautiful playing and see that their dad was a special guy and he influenced many people with his gift of music,” says Smith, who offers, with a rueful smile, the heart-warming advice that, “we have just got to celebrate life while we are here, make every day count.”

Luke Smith plays PizzaExpress Live (Holborn) on Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 August.

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LINKS: Luke Smith’s website

Ticket details at Pizza Express Live

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