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Jason Samuels Smith

By Eva Yaa Asantewaa

The Joyce Theater, NYC
July 3–7, 2012
Performance reviewed: July 4


Jason Samuels Smith—no longer flying those Tribe-of-Savion dreadlocks—bursts onto the tap floor at a gallop, all business. Theo Hill’s jazz quintet, with Carlos Abadie and Plume cooking on trumpet and alto saxophone, respectively, lays down the bebop framework—Charlie Parker’s “Bebop,” to be specific—with “improvographer” Samuels Smith cramming in as many beats as he can, pecking and stroking the wood with every angle and surface of his shoes, echoing the loop-di-loop of Hill’s piano, trading licks with drummer Kyle Poole. Ah-rum-di-bum-di-bum.

This opening solo, Imagine, seals the deal: Tap, at least the kind I crave, really is bebop. In fact, Samuels Smith—whose Joyce Theater season was inspired by Parker’s revolutionary music—believes that tap dancers put the beats in the ears and creative minds of the boppers, not the other way around.

With “Bebop” squared away, Samuels Smith turns spare and reflective for Horace Silver’s “Lonely Woman,” a quiet, flowing number. Here and there, he drops a few scrapes and slides, an elegant trembling of feet against floor, a few knocks. He applies the sides of his shoes with the accuracy of an elite pastry chef laying on the chocolate icing, drawing squeals from his besotted audience.

 

Finally, he goes a capella, enjoying his own sounds and giving us eye-and-smile, unlike Savion Glover, as if to say, “You hear this?” A voice from the audience lobs out, “Go on!” And he does—sly and cool though hard-charging.

All of this, at least for me, would have been enough, but it wouldn’t fill the program’s hour. So we were treated to Chloé Arnold, Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards flawlessly matching Parker note for note in excerpts from Charlie’s Angels (2009). Sumbry-Edwards, in particular, is fun to watch as she smooths out the breaks with a sideways swing of her leg or a graceful pivot of her upper body.

 

 

Michelle Dorrance, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Chloé Arnold

 © AK47 Division, Courtesy of Divine Rhythm Productions

 

I’m of two minds about Charlie’s Angels, loving its forceful tribute to the virtuosity of women in tap—from yesterday’s chorus girls right up through personable young innovators like Dorrance. A few years on, though, that tight marriage of steps to the Parker music starts to feel restrictive, arbitrary, and unnecessary in light of the masterful bebop lesson Samuels Smith has already taught us in Imagine.

The excerpts from Chasing the Bird (2012) are, sort of, Charlie's Angels spliced with a morality tale about temptation by, let's call him, the Devil of Commercial Fame, played by Frank Harts. (“All you need to know is how many behinds you can get in those seats!”) Arnold, Dorrance, and Sumbry-Edwards are, once again, vivacious and fun, but the awkward, largely inaudible vocal elements of this piece (spoken word and song) leave an amateurish impression. And besides, isn’t bebop hoofing capable of speaking for itself?


Pictured at top: Jason Samuels Smith. © AK47 Division, Courtesy of Divine Rhythm Productions