Joel La Rue Smith brings his former jazz students to Costa Rica as part of an international cultural envoy.
This article was originally written for A.M. Costa Rica which is an English language news source in Costa Rica.
A Friday afternoon at 11 am hardly sounds like the perfect time for an Afro-Cuban Jazz show and hosting it at the Public Library in Limon makes it sound even less perfect. Electrical storms and heavy rains had closed schools and caused flooding that morning. But against all odds the Joel La Rue Smith Trio, played a captivating set to the 30 or so people who came to be a part of Costa Rica’s 2013 International Jazz Festival, which runs through August 4th.
The Joel La Rue Smith Trio is comprised of Joel (pronounced Joe-L), who in addition to being the leader is also the current director of Jazz/Big Band at Tufts University in Medford , playing piano, Parker McCallister, on a five string bass and Charles Burchell, who recently graduated Harvard with a Masters in Education, handling percussion.
Joel was kind enough to sit down with me before the show and discuss what it means to be a part of a U.S. cultural envoy, his music style and his upcoming CD’s.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington
Joel, 40, who is from Queens, New York and has roots on his Father’s side in Louisiana, has traveled all over the world playing with orchestras and in major jazz festivals. He has performed at the White House as well as the Royal Albert Hall in London.
This is his fourth trip to Costa Rica but his first time as part of the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Envoy. When asked what it means to him to be chosen for this cultural mission Joel says that it is an honor. He says “To be asked here in an official capacity that means that they have acknowledged your worth on more than just a verbal level.” and “Being part of the Cultural Envoy is like creating an ally in spreading the music to the world. I’m following in the tradition of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, people that I admire.”
He adds that he has always had a positive experience in Costa Rica. He’s been around the world and he considers Costa Rica a mountain top experience. Diversity is a buzz word in the world now but it really exists in Costa Rica.
“In fact,” he tells me “the student band members are playing in place of Joel’s previous band members because of Costa Rica”. Before the start of 2012’s Jazz Festival Manuel Arce, Cultural Director for the CR – US Cultural Center, asked Joel if he could bring African-Americans and students to help promote the Black Culture Festival. Last year was his first year to bring them “and we have been playing together ever since” he says.
I ask if he has played with any Costa Rican musicians while here and he emphatically answers “Yes, the kids in the New Jazz Project. They are the group to watch. They play with authenticity and are fusing Latino roots with jazz.”
His Music Styles
The core of his jazz music has a strong allegiance to Cuban tradition and his classical to the Russian school of piano playing. He considers Isabelle Vengerova a musical “grandparent” because he studied with someone who studied with her. “It’s almost like a pedigree.” he says. He insists that he prefers performing live to recording and wants his music to make you feel uneasy but good all at the same time.
When asked about his musical accomplishments he says “I have worked very hard to be a leader. I have worked for everything I have” and “This is just the tip of the iceberg for me. As an artist you never get settled, you don’t feel like you accomplish much. There is always more to do.” With certainty he expresses this great truth “Everyone has a purpose and it is up to us to find out what it is and believe in it. Let no one tear you away from it.”
Be on the lookout for Smith’s 2 new CD’s coming out this December. The classical Colossus Piano Collection includes an original sonata and the Afro-Cuban Jazz is Motorman’s Son, which harbors 7 original songs and 3 standards. His Dad is a motorman for the NYC subway.