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New Album From Ronny Smith, Struttin’



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to guitarist Ronny Smith about his influences and his new album, Struttin’.

Radio promoters have called guitarist Ronny Smith a “tweener” – an artist who falls between jazz and the R&B-flavored unban jazz that dominates smooth jazz radio. Growing up in the greater Baltimore area, Ronny studied at Morgan State University and the University of Maryland. Smith also served four years of active duty as an Army guitarist and thirty-one years of part-time duty in Army bands. As a leader, Ronny has ten albums out including his newest “Struttin’”.

JB:  To help our readers get to know you better, did you study with any well-known musical personalities, or are you self-taught?  I know you took a few lessons with Pat Martino.

RS:  The only well-known personality that I studied a few lessons with was Pat Martino, however, while attending college I studied with Larry Wooldridge, a Baltimore icon jazz guitarist. Once in the military, where most of my education on guitar came from, I studied with Bob Roetker. I learned more from him than anyone else. He is a great guitarist and instructor. 

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

RS:  Your question asked about the three most influential albums however, that is a little tough to name. I listen to a wide variety of albums to learn different techniques. For example, the first album had to be (George Benson’s) Breezin’. I became hooked on guitar after listening to that album. I wanted to play just like that. I listened to that album maybe 200 hundred times while attempting to copy some of those licks that George Benson was playing. However, once in the military band system, I was introduced to many different jazz songs and artists. Many of which I probably wouldn’t have heard about if not introduced in that environment. For example, David Spinozza’s Spinozza, Pat Martino’s El Hombre, Vic Juris’ Horizon Drive, Larry Carlton & The Crusaders, and Lee Ritenour’s RIT. I listen to each of these artists to hear their licks used to solo over various chord progressions and learn their comping styles and writing styles. These are just a few outside of the norm like Freddie Green, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, etc…

JB:  Reflect upon your US Army years and what you found so rewarding in working with the military ensembles.

RS:  The military music experience ranges from jazz band (big band), concert band, marching band, and small ensembles. For marching band and concert band, I played clarinet. For jazz band and combo, I played guitar and bass when a sub was needed. Our duties ranged from supporting military ceremonies to community outreach. I enjoyed the community outreach the most. Through public concerts, festivals, concerts at schools, and other community events we were able to promote positive relationships between the military and the civilian communities.

JB:  Struttin’ is a wonderful new album on Pacific Coast Jazz Records with you featured as a guitarist in a larger combo as well as smaller settings. Talk about the larger vision you had in making this album. 

RS:  For this project, I wanted to capture as much of the jazz spectrum as possible. I set out to cover R&B, smooth jazz, contemporary, and jazz standards all in one listening experience within ten tracks. I also wanted to include a whole host of talented players utilizing both vocals and instrumentals. My goal was to have the listener “Struttin” like a Philly Mummer (New Year’s Day parade in Philadelphia) while listening. Meanwhile, I wanted to pay tribute to two of my favorite guitarists, George Benson and Wes Montgomery keeping their style in mind, but utilizing funk, smooth rhythms, and a Latin feel as I hear it.

JB:  The album has a bit of a smooth jazz feel throughout. What do you find rewarding in the contemporary approach as opposed to a more traditional straight-ahead approach? 

RS:  I love the straight-ahead style just as much as the contemporary. My approach is to use some of the straight-ahead techniques and soloing styles over the contemporary style. I also like to spruce it up a little by inserting funk and smooth rhythms in hopes of attracting a new audience. However, I am currently working on a straight-ahead project now. To be released in the near future.

JB:  All the songs except two are originals.  In a general sense, talk about compiling the songs for this recording.

RS:  I am a compulsive writer. Meaning, I like to write, arrange, and produce as much music as I possibly can. I’m very thankful that I’ve been given the talent and time to do so. When I start a project, I try to come up with a theme. Then, I try to match songs (original or cover) that will fit within that theme. Not all the songs that I write or have written will fit, therefore, requires a new song to be written to work/fit better. In general, for all my projects, this is my thought process. In addition, I tried to get in variety to keep the listener’s attention.

JB:  Your version of “Laura” is refreshing.  Talk about how you came up with this rendition.

RS:  For a while I wanted to arrange a song that I always liked when I played in big band settings. “Laura” and “Tangerine” were among my favorites. So, I researched and listened to the various recordings of both, and “Laura” won out. I listened to arrangements from Frank Sinatra’s recording as well as various big band arrangements. I played around with each concept and decided to go with a more contemporary chord structure and rhythm. I felt this would fit the smooth sound of the overall project’s recordings.

JB:  What drew you to Wes Montgomery’s “Angel” from the A Day in the Life album over other songs of his?

RS:  I really like “Angel”, it’s a beautiful melody. Wes Montgomery’s composition/arrangement demonstrated the use of rhythmic chordal and single-line versatility, which I really like.  In addition, I tried to choose songs that I rarely hear. Such as “Bumpin”, “West Coast Blues”, and “Four on Six”, etc…

JB:  Practice and listening aside, can you pinpoint one or two ‘things’ that really boosted your profile and career toward where it’s at today?

RS:  Support and encouragement! And having the love and discipline to do this.

Tell us about the guitar and amp that you use.

The guitars I primarily use are my Sadowsky LS-15, my Sadowsky Nylon, and my Sadowsky NYC T Style guitar.  As far as an amplifier, my Quilter Mach 3.

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