The first time I met and played with Paul Smoker must have been in 1987, just prior to Joint Venture’s first recording project. Joint Venture was formed out of a series of regular sessions at drummer Phil Haynes’ Corner Store loft in Brooklyn. We had a trio with bassist Drew Gress and Phil suggested we invite Paul to come in from Iowa (where he had been living and teaching) to make a recording with us. Paul was Phil’s teacher at Coe College and Phil became part of Paul’s speed / power trio with bassist Ron Rohovit. They had made an LP or two, one of them featuring Anthony Braxton as guest artist. Phil told me all about Paul, we listened to the recordings and somehow it seemed right to do this even as it was something of a risk, agreeing to make a studio recording with someone I’d never played with. Paul was also a good twenty years older than us so it wasn’t quite like inviting one of your peers to go along with a speculative deal. I wasn’t even completely sure about the “do it yourself” thing myself but Phil was thinking big and talking persuasively. We agree, Phil makes the call. Paul agrees and books his flight, joining us a couple of weeks later to rehearse and get acquainted.
The night arrives and in comes Paul, tall guy, cowboy hat, cigarette. And of course his trumpet. His image would seem to match his reputation for candor and directness. You could be forgiven for feeling a bit intimidated although he was also very relaxed and genuine, no games. This is our first meeting. A little small talk and now we’re gonna play. I suggested we try “Just in Time”. Paul kind of scoffed, in a good natured way, but still, tinged with a bit of incredulity and probably deeper down, a sense of WTF!?! I think he may have wanted to give me a hard time but was giving me the benefit of the doubt instead. So after a bit of hemming and hawing, subtle posturing and a couple of well placed sighs he reached back into the memory banks as we counted off the tune. What came out of his horn could not have been more at odds with the attitude expressed just moments before. Total commitment, unabashed, emotionally engaged and dealing with the tune on multiple levels at once.
After this ended we kind of took a few minutes to let it all sink in. A pretty intense performance for a first time meeting. Almost a bit of a shock. Nothing much to say afterwards. Paul gradually catches his breath and comes back to that attitude he was working on before, saying, in a somewhat confrontational tone, “Man, you know how long it’s been since I played Just in Time”? Pause. “Yea, about five minutes ago”, I shot back. At that point Paul’s face lit up with a beautiful smile and we all laughed at the fact that in spite of all the protestations to the contrary, we still could not have imagined Paul Smoker (or anyone else for that matter) making “Just in Time” any more “real” than we had just witnessed. At that moment I think we all realized that this “Joint Venture” might work pretty well. The music and the connection was palpable and just cut through everything.
We kept the band going for three recordings on the enja records label, which helped us all get a start in the recording and touring business branching out as individual leaders over the years. Joint Venture had a unique chemistry, four musicians each with individual and strongly felt approaches to the music, exploring common ground while allowing ourselves to be pulled in other directions at the same time. As a result of this healthy tension I think we were able to touch on that “whole is larger than the sum of the parts” kind of thing. It’s really beautiful when something like that can happen.
So thanks Paul for sharing such a wonderful spirit in your life and music. Many people loved you deeply and you live on through them and through their music.
Paul Smoker passed on May 14, 2016 at the age of 75.