October 31, 2004

Gwen Laster - I Hear You Smiling

Welcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a British perspective on all that’s good, and not so good, in the world of smooth jazz and classic soul.

When one associates instruments with smooth and contemporary jazz, the normal starting point is the saxophone, both the guitar and keyboards loom large, the trumpet tends to make a cameo appearance and then that’s just about it. Well, that was then and this is now with an up and coming artist on the scene who is about to change all of that. Her name is Gwen Laster and she plays, of all things, the violin.

GwenLaster_bw.jpgThe violin is, of course, not completely new to jazz, hip-hop and R & B. For example Karen Briggs has featured on some outstanding pieces of work but with Gwen Laster, and her CD I Hear You Smiling, we now have a spectacular success in using the violin coupled with Laster’s own soulful vocals to capture the essence of smooth and sensuous rhythms.

In fact it could be said that Gwen Laster has led a double life. First the stunning contemporary jazz electric violinist who’s own group won the Cognac Hennessy Best of Detroit Jazz Search and the other, more sedate, Gwen Laster, who holds a Master of Music degree from the University of Michigan, and played the acoustic violin in the Dearborn and Warren Symphonies and has performed with the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Chicago Civic Orchestra. Gwen began her Classical training on violin in the public schools of Detroit and was surrounded by her mother’s love for blues, jazz and R&B. She was inspired through a progressive high school teacher who introduced her to the electric violin, improvisation, and recording sessions for artists’ whose music represented the Motown Sound.

Her relocation from Detroit to New York in 1993 expanded greatly to her performance experience. Credits from Broadway Shows have included Miss Saigon, Carousel, Beauty and the Beast and her opportunities have continued to flourish through television performances for Brian McKnight, Aretha Franklin, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. Her discography has built impressively and includes appearances with Angie Stone on the track ‘Bottles and Cans’ from her Mahogany Soul release, Toni Braxton on the tracks ‘Ghost Trance’ and ‘Shala’, Patti LaBelle on ‘Crazy Love’ and Kyle Eastwood on his ‘Eastwood After Hours’.

Commenting on her work with Shaggy on the track ‘It Wasn’t Me’ from his album Hot Shot, she says, ‘recording with Shaggy and his co-producer Sting was spontaneous, refreshing yet specific and detail oriented about the melodic figures and lines they hear for the violin parts. I always felt free and relaxed when we were in the studio’.

She has also worked with Alicia Keys on The Diary of Alicia Keys and ‘Fallin’ from the soundtrack of the highly acclaimed movie Ali. ‘Alicia Keys is stunning in her interpretation of communicating how she wants the sound and timbre of the violin to be recorded’, says Laster, ‘she is centered, grounded and grateful for all the artists who contribute their music to her recordings’.

Gwen also finds time to teach privately at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights. Her string ensemble music Jazz and Pop Arrangements for Strings was released in June 2002. These arrangements were inspired through her work as former Director of Jazz Strings at the Harlem School of the Arts.

Her first CD, Sneak Preview, was a great piece of work comprising six very tight tracks. It was released in January 2000 and features Laster as violinist and vocalist. Produced by Damon Banks, musicians on the project include vocalist Karen Bernod plus instrumentalists Damon Banks, Carlton Holmes, Tony Lewis, Joe Scott, David Gilmore, Felix Sanabria and Abdou Mboup.

GwenLaster_HearYouSmiling.jpgHer latest release, I Hear You Smiling, again features Gwen on violin and vocals and is again produced by Damon Banks. Musicians from the project include vocalist Bitte Strauchn whose credits include work with Tears for Fears, instrumentalists Carlton Holmes (Regina Bell and Freddie Hubbard), Joe Scott (the Lauryn Hill Band), Herbie Maitlandt (Chico DeBarge), Wali Muhammad (Stanley Turrentine and Peter Tosh), Tony Lewis, Aubrey Dayle and Neil Clarke. It’s a stunning high-class ensemble with a pedigree that is evident on each one of the nine superbly crafted tracks.

Right from track #1, ‘Rasputins Running’, the hypnotic groove is established and it just keeps on running. The music draws you in and takes you to another world. It’s compelling, fresh and totally original. A real standout is the soulful track #5 ‘Send Love To The Equation’ with vocals by Bitte Strauchn and haunting violin from Laster.

Perhaps only track #8, where Gwen moves us into semi classical mode, fails to live up to the standard that she herself has created by all that has gone on before but, come track #9 and the reprise of ‘Before The Summer’, the listener is left in no doubt that this is a refreshingly different and exciting album that lives in the memory. Because it is so different it’s almost impossible to do justice to in a few short and inadequate words. Yet The Secret Garden cannot recommend this piece of work highly enough and whatever it takes, steps should be taken to check it out.

Gwen Laster has also another exciting project in the making. Just a few weeks ago she recorded a piece entitled ‘The Darkest Child’ in midtown Manhattan with a seventeen piece string ensemble and an array of top class musicians including Billy Pierce on soprano saxophone and the composer of the piece, Cecilia Smith, on vibraphone.

This musical work traces the life of an African American Senior citizen who has led an unusual life of service. The work can best be compared to a piece called A Lincoln Portrait written by American composer Aaron Copeland that used orchestration and narration to highlight Lincoln's life. The work that Cecilia Smith has composed, utilizes both jazz and classical composing devices as well as some sampling. Gwen refers to it as ‘ a very unusual and exciting piece’. News is still awaited on the release date for ‘The Darkest Child’.

One way or another the eclectic Gwen Laster looks to have lots to offer. Fortunately the world of adult contemporary smooth jazz seems particularly well served by her abundant talents.

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this months Secret Garden? Do you have a favorite Smooth Soul Survivor that you would enjoy being featured in a future edition? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at October 31, 2004 7:59 PM