Local jazz’s prodigal son Smith Dobson V returns with a new sound
Smith Dobson V grew up playing the clubs and streets of Santa Cruz, and the Oakland jazz musician carries that legacy with him wherever he goes.
The scion of a jazz dynasty, he’s the son of the late, beloved Santa Cruz pianist Smith Dobson and vocalist Gail Dobson, who’s still a vital force on the Bay Area music scene. His sister, vocalist Sasha Dobson, recently released an album with the deliriously fun alt-country band Puss n Boots, No Fools, No Fun, a project with longtime friends Norah Jones and Catherine Popper.
When Dobson returns to Santa Cruz Thursday for a gig at Kuumbwa, he’ll be celebrating the release of his own album Soul of Wood, his first project featuring his work on tenor saxophone. Also a skilled vibraphonist who studied with jazz legend Bobby Hutcherson, Dobson divides his time these days between saxophone and drums.
Inspired by cool-toned tenor sax titans Lester Young, Stan Getz and Warne Marsh, he decided to deliver a statement about his formative saxophone influences, “to pay homage to the masters who have shaped my sound,” says Dobson, 37.
Featuring clarinet master and composer Ben Goldberg, a UC Santa Cruz grad who has gained international recognition as an invaluable innovator on the instrument, Dobson’s band has honed a contrapuntal approach with interwoven melodies.
“Interestingly enough, I learned that from Ben when he used to live in Santa Cruz,” Dobson says. “I used to hear him at the Jahva House when I was 14 or so playing with Kenny Wollesen and Graham Connah. I consider him one of the greatest improvisers in the world.”
Dobson has developed the repertoire while holding down a coveted spot at Club Deluxe in the Haight, playing every Tuesday and third Saturday. He also performs every first Saturday at Bird & Beckett Books & Records, an intimate outpost for jazz in San Francisco. With first-call bassist John Wiitala, pianist Keith Saunders, a 20-year New York veteran, and drummer Hamir Atwal, the band is stocked with top-shelf improvisers.
“Keith reminds me of my dad,” Dobson says, offering the pianist the highest praise. “He swings so hard, and he has such complete mastery of the bebop and post-bop idioms. Hamir is an old friend who I remember starting out on drums with a lot of potential. Now he’s truly original and he’s taking my gigs! He’s got a feather-light touch.”
As a drummer, he and Wiitala have shared rhythm section duties on countless gigs, including several recordings with Berkeley trumpeter Erik Jekabson.
“I have the most history of all with John,” Dobson says. “He’s one of my dearest friends.”
Dobson is no stranger to the Kuumbwa. He started playing at the venue as a young teenager, sitting in on Bob Blankenship’s drums at the club’s weekly jam session. At 15, he started studying with Ray Brown at Cabrillo College, where he finally found peers equally obsessed with music. “I went from being a really lonely kid with no friends, a weirdo listening to jazz, to actually making good friends,” Dobson says.
Before long he was playing on the Pacific Garden Mall with trombonist Scott Larson, a connection that evolved into a trio with bassist Ron Overbury. Inspired by the visceral free jazz of John Zorn, the band expanded to a quintet with trumpeter standards and altoist Greg Reynolds, landed a long-running Tuesday night gig at Palookaville as the Guts.
“We were doing this incredibly aggressive jazz,” Dobson recalls. “We played there every Tuesday for about a year, until they finally kicked us out. But we built a little following. We were mostly playing Scott’s originals. He was taking a lot of shrooms, and writing his ass off.”
Those were the days when Dobson focused on drums and vibes. He returns to Santa Cruz wearing his tenor hat, playing quietly intense chamber jazz designed for maximum melodic invention.
Info: 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, $20/$25, 427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org