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In the Swing and Definitely in Control

With a Top-Selling Self-Produced CD Behind Them, Lavay Smith and Band Have Hit Their Stride

November 01, 2000|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You could easily get the wrong idea about Lavay Smith. After all, the cover of her band's latest CD, "Everybody's Talkin' 'Bout Miss Thing!," features her sexily adorned in black thigh-high stockings and a revealing, leopard-print blouse sitting atop a tiki bar with tropical drink in hand.

But Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are not just another swing revival band with oodles of kitsch value. Beneath that retro pin-up pose is real swing music, with some awfully good jump blues, bebop, New Orleans R&B and classic jazz to boot.

Recalling Dinah Washington, Smith's smoky contralto demonstrates an understanding of the music's timeless essence. As for the credentials of the Red Hot Skillet Lickers, these impressive veterans have backed some of the best, including Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Otis Clay, Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Ray Charles, Jimmy Witherspoon, Kenny Burrell, Wynton Marsalis and Lionel Hampton.

Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, who perform Thursday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, are gathering commercial steam, too. Released in March, the critically praised "Everybody's Talkin' 'Bout Miss Thing!" recently spent 20 straight weeks on the Billboard Jazz Charts, peaking at No. 10.

The versatile band plays a mix of originals, classics and obscure gems. Pianist-arranger Chris Siebert is responsible for the inventive charts, which always leave space for some memorable soloing, an attribute that most of today's "Daddy" bands can only marvel at. Although the 11-year-old band has surely benefited from the recent swing revival, it in no way can be accused of jumping on the bandwagon.

"We don't play just swing, anyway," said Smith, 30, by phone from her home office in San Francisco. "We play a variety of music. . . . New Orleans, jazz, blues, jump blues, R&B. It's all roots-based, classic American music.

"With this whole revival, the word 'swing' really took on a whole new meaning," she added. "You can't just decide, 'Oh, I'm going to play Louis Jordan now.' You've got to study, study and study that music. I think a lot of people got the flavoring but missed the heart, soul and swing of the music. Those are the bands that have come and gone."

A Long Beach native, Smith formed an alternative rock-country-blues band after attending Fountain Valley High School in the late '80s. But after she started listening to her parents' Bessie Smith records, she knew jazz would play a part in her future.

By 1988, Smith had joined an L.A. jazz trio called Bo Grumpus, which featured pianist-arranger Chris Siebert. The next year, Smith and Siebert moved to San Francisco and began assembling the original Skillet Lickers, which played local bars and clubs before touring the U.S. and Europe. It didn't record its debut until nearly seven years after forming because, according to Smith, more time was needed to hone the musicians' chops.

"A band our size goes through a lot of changes, and we had a lot to learn on several levels," she said. "We weren't that experienced professionally, and the give-and-take between musicians takes a while to click. I'm really glad we waited because that first album [1996's 'One Hour Mama'] is something we're all very proud of now."

Band members are trumpeters Allen Smith and Bill Ortiz; tenor saxophonists Herman Riley, Robert Stewart and Hal Stein; tenor and alto saxophonists Howard Wiley and Jules Broussard; tenor and baritone saxophonist Rob Stallings; alto saxophonist Bill Stewart; upright bassist Nathan Bing; drummer Sly Randolph; and guitarist Charlie Siebert.

The band has self-released both albums on its Fat Note Records.

"We know what we like, and we don't need the outside help," Smith said. "Labels bring in their own producers, who have their own style and ego. All of the answers we need can be found inside of ourselves. We're not about to give up creative control."

It's exactly that kind of uncompromising spirit that compels Smith to exercise her sexuality strictly on her terms.

"Exposing myself in that pose on the cover . . . I think it's a great image for women," she said. "I am not a size 2. I'm a 10/12, and women love to see someone in that position who doesn't look like Calista Flockhart. It's refreshing because it's a sexy image that's also positive.

"Modern feminism to me is understanding the power of your sexuality. That's what I've learned from listening to the blues queens of the '20s and '30s. I mean, these women knew what they had, that they had something special, and it was an empowering thing."

Smith communicates this liberating attitude in tunes that are suggestive and open to interpretation. In "Roll the Boogie," a sassy song she wrote with Chris Siebert, she declares: "My man likes to boogie / Boogie with a steady roll / When he boogies my woogie / He satisfies my soul."

"I like to sing about sex because people can laugh and relate to it," she said. "Some of these themes never go out of style, either. Like in 'One Hour Mama,' where I'm telling a man he's got to take his time [being intimate] with a woman. Well, what's changed? It's the same old thing 80 years later."

SHOW TIME

Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers play Thursday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Crosstown 7 opens at 8 p.m. $15-$17. (949) 496-8930.

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