It’s not like Smokey Hormel was in any danger of being pigeon-holed. I mean, this superb guitarist has shown in the past that he’s comfortable working in just about any style—hence he’s got a discography that includes Johnny Cash, Beck, k.d. lang, Tom Waits, John Doe, Emmylou Harris, Justin Timberlake and the Dixie Chicks, to name a few. Even so, I wouldn’t have expected the first album I heard bearing his name (okay, I never heard 2002’s Smokey and Miho) to be an album of utterly delightful instrumental interpretations of African pop music from the early ’60s. Now, I have listened to quite a bit of African music through the years and feel as though I’m pretty well-versed in everything from Highlife to Soukous to Juju to Zambian and South African styles. But this is none of those; in fact, it’s music from an earlier period I evidently was not familiar with: one when African bands were being heavily influenced by Latin and Caribbean music—the influence of American soul and rock comes more in the ’70s. Instead of the fast, slinky guitar-driven music I was expecting, this is more based around Latin and calypso beats—rumbas, mambos… I’m pretty sure there’s even a cha-cha in there.
Hormel’s guitar playing throughout is skillful but never showy, very tasteful and always in service of the arrangements, which run the gamut from breezy small-band numbers with horns, clarinet, bass and percussion, to spare acoustic tunes that have a sort of Ry Cooder-ish feel (that’s a compliment; I don’t mean to imply that’s it’s imitative in any way). There’s plenty of textural variety, with the imaginative employment of all sorts of instruments—harmonica, saxophone, Theremin, mallet instruments; all kinds of hand drums, shakers, etc.—many of them played by Hormel. Smokey also wrote two of the tunes.
All in all it’s a rich, colorful and ultimately joyful tapestry. My only complaint is I wish it was twice as long! The album will be released September 15.
Producer: Smokey Hormel. Engineers: Michael Crehore, Yohei Goto, Hormel. Mixing: Hormel, Patrick Dillett (two songs). Studios: Dubway (NYC), Brooklyn Recording (NYC), Spam Factory (Hoboken, NJ), Kamo (NYC)