Joel LaRue Smith’s album and song, “The Motorman’s Son,” is steeped in musical and personal history. The concept of the song, from title to rhythm, provides details about Smith’s family story.
“The Motorman’s Son”: More than an album
Just seeing the album cover of “The Motorman’s Son” makes me curious about the story behind it. The not-quite sepia, not quite black-and-white picture of an elevated train, informs that the “motorman” in question, worked on a similar vehicle. The age of the picture indicates history, and all the listener has to do is engage with the music.
With “The Motorman’s Son,” Smith uses the facts of his family’s story to craft an unassuming jazz album. His father worked as a subway motorman in New York City. Smith’s family had come from Louisiana in the second wave of the Great Migration, where the relative cornucopia of jobs in the industrialized north beckoned disenfranchised workers in the segregated south.
About Joel LaRue Smith
Acclaimed pianist and educator, Smith has bachelor and master degrees in music and composition, respectively. His achievements are numerous—among them is the George and Ira Gershwin Award. Smith has performed internationally, and at Carnegie Hall. He has been the director of Tufts Jazz Orchestra since 1997. His debut CD, “September’s Child” was released in 2008. Smith’s commitment to jazz is unmistakable. Still, the way he has used the genre to tell stories is fascinating.
The sound of “The Motorman’s Son”
The title of the album and song take on a certain connotation once audiences know the backstory. There is respect and nostalgia in the title. A person can intuit the respect Smith has for his father, the work he did, and how he cares deeply for his humble beginnings. He is the motorman’s son. The focus is on heritage and story.
Latin-sounding rhythms permeate the work. That too is part of Smith’s family story. His Afro-Cuban lineage is represented in the song’s sound. The Latin rhythm creates images of salsa dancers; horns play a jaunty tune. In the next section, the horns keep time with the mid-tempo piano. Percussion of various sort thump and clack rhythms. At about two minutes in, a classic jazz motif swings in, calling to mind New York City of a certain era. The piano work is mesmerizing—Smith has stories to tell. The instrumentation is undergirded by bass that is present without overwhelming.
“The Motorman’s Son” is a mix of mostly original songs, with two cover songs that help convey the theme. The entire album can be viewed as a collection of essays. Each song is an essay that tells the ways the father has impacted the son.