Vocalist Hillary Smith has so much on her plate right now she’s just going to have to get herself a bigger one.
She’s performing with two funk groups, Hip Pocket and the GT’s. She’s collaborating on two recording projects, one with acclaimed pianist and (who knew?) vocalist Kevin Hays (The Dreamer, to be released on April 27), the other with knockout bassist Luis Guerra. She’s got two more recording projects in the works with hip saxophonist Doug Lawrence: a live performance recorded at the Outpost last summer and a yet-unnamed big band studio project, being recorded in Milwaukee with the Doug Lawrence Band. That group features legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield, who wrote the book on funk while playing behind James Brown.
Then, of course, there’s the new quartet that’s appearing this week, with John Rangel (piano), Guerra (bass) and Arnaldo Acosta (drums).
“It’s a real throwback kind of concert,” she says about the Outpost gig. “We’re doing some standard stuff but just paring it down and approaching it a little more emotionally.”
She mentions “You Belong to Me,” “When I Fall in Love,” a Dinah Washington–inspired version of “I Want to Be Around” and Laverne Butler’s arrangement of “West Coast Blues.”
“We’re trying to put a lot of different feels in there,” she says. “We’ve got some jazz ones. We got some blues going on. Then, of course, I’ll probably throw something in there with some funk in it.
“The thing with working with Arnaldo—I can call any kind of show, because he can backbeat, just swing, just play some filthy blues. So it’s going to be a little bit of all of that.”
Smith sees the new quartet, which has performed only once before, as “a great opportunity to play with a new combination of players.”
“It’s a real fresh sound,” she says, noting that this is the first project on which she’s worked closely with Rangel.
“He’s sensational,” she adds.
Smith and Guerra have been working together for years. “He’s a really close friend,” she says. “We’ve also been in the studio off-and-on for the last year-and-a-half working on a neosoul-fused-with-jazz kind of funk, all-original project.”
Smith seems genuinely stunned by the opportunity to work with so many great people. At the Milwaukee recording date in February, for example, not only did she have the chance to work with Stubblefield, but the engineer, Rick Probst, “had a string of platinum records along the wall”—dance hits from the ’80s that Smith had thrilled to back in the day.
“Between you and me, I was so intimidated because these guys—their careers are just so immense,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting everybody to be so kind, and so generous and welcoming. I was really knocked out.”
She’s psyched about the Hays project, too. “He has me doing a lead and a couple of backgrounds on his thing, and that material will make you cry,” she says. “It is so beautiful and so sensitive, and Kevin is singing on most of it, and he is amazing. Wait till you hear him. You’re not going to believe it.”
She hasn’t forgotten her funky side, though, gigging regularly with the two groups at the hot nightspots. (Catch Hill and the GT’s Friday night at The Eldorado Hotel in Santa Fe: 988-4455.)
The best way to keep track of what’s on Smith’s plate is to check her website, www.hilljam.com, which is updated regularly.
Judging from the website, she should consider a platter. Plate ain’t big enough.
The Hillary Smith Quartet appears at the Outpost Performance Space on Thursday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 ($10 for members) at the Outpost (210 Yale SE, 268-0044).