There's no question that local singer Lavay Smith is more than just a cult phenomenon. Her swing band, the Red Hot Skillet Lickers, features the Bay Area's top royalty: bassists Marcus Shelby and David Ewell; saxophonists Howard Wiley and Jules Broussard; trumpeters Mike Olmos and Bill Ortiz; trombonist Danny Armstrong; and drummer Darrell Green. And more than a decade of skillet-licking has made Smith one of the top-selling acts in the area.
Yet Smith's popularity can be a bit mystifying. She's a refined and capable singer, but not the big-voiced belter that her sales tally would lead you to believe. Rather, it's her totality that makes her appealing. She's got the looks, she knows the American songbook, and she puts her own fiery personality into Ray Charles' "Jumpin' in the Morning" and Count Basie's "Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong)." Also, Smith and Chris Siebert compose in a style that sounds très Ellingtonian. They contribute three original tunes to Miss Smith ("Daddy," "With My Man," and "I'm Not Evil,") all of which resemble the nine standards that complete the album. Most importantly, though, Smith has a killin' band to back her. Just listen to Wiley and Armstrong manhandle their horns on "Boogie Woogie," or Ortiz bobbling a quote from "Willow Weep for Me" on the Bessie Smith tribute, "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl."
Miss Smith is impressive both for its sense of legacy and the persona of its lead singer. But if you turned the vocals off, it would still be a fine album. (Fat Note)
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