You could be excused on first meeting Daniel Ian Smith if you mistook him for a member of the clergy. Smith is tall — over six feet, with a heavy jaw, a deep baritone voice, and, well, a somewhat evangelical air about him. So you wouldn’t be surprised to find that the performance series he directs is called Jazz in the Sanctuary, and that it takes place in a church.
But Smith isn’t clergy. He’s a jazz saxophonist and composer. And he laughs about the title of his series, which he’s been directing for six years. " There’s no spiritual significance to it, " he protests when we sit down to chat. But in talking to him, I get the feeling that over the past decade he has in a sense formed his own lay ministry, and that creating a sanctuary for jazz in a church is completely appropriate to his sensibility.
Now 38, Smith came to Boston to study at New England Conservatory in 1987; he began Jazz at the Sanctuary in 1996, after returning from a six-month fellowship in Japan. " In Tokyo, " he says, " there were more than 60 jazz clubs. And I came back to Boston and looked around and thought, ‘One, two, three, four . . . ’ " He laughs. " I thought, okay, what do I do? Do I sit around and bitch about it? Do I go back to Japan? Or do I try and become pro-active and do something? "
He made inquiries about a space; through a friend he found Michael Corrigan, rector at Brookline’s Church of Our Saviour, which has an active music program, and he presented a proposal outlining short-term and long-term goals. But his mission was simple: " I wanted to find an opportunity for myself, my colleagues, and other musicians that I really respect to perform in a concert setting. "
Corrigan provided the space, which includes a Steinway piano; Smith and his wife Eileen set to work. Their first concert presented NEC prof and free-improv master pianist Paul Bley in a trio. Since then, Smith’s various ensembles have featured the work of composers including Carla Bley and Marty Ehrlich. Local musicians who have played at the Sanctuary include Greg Hopkins (with his Miles Davis–project nonet), Joe Mulholland, and Tim Ray. On April 27, former Charles Mingus sideman Jack Walrath will be featured in a concert of his own music.
Smith puts on the Sanctuary shows with no funding, and all the proceeds go to the musicians. Eileen Smith cooks a meal for the performers before each show and takes tickets at the door. Daniel, partly out of obligation to the performers but also because " I feel guilty about getting the space for nothing, " pays to have the piano tuned before each show.
" I’ve always felt that music is a collective, community experience, " he continues. " Which I find is less and less the norm, but I still really feel it is. " For a while, he even considered starting a collectively run local jazz label. " Everyone said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a great idea — give me a call when you get it off the ground!’ " He laughs again. " I love to share, I love to play other people’s music, and I have a bunch of great friends who are wonderful composers and have been very generous. " His grassroots organizing and his network of generous friends are indicative of a below-the-radar, non-commercial scene in the area that includes performances at spaces like the Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square and the Artists-at-Large Gallery in Hyde Park, and at the Boston Creative Music Alliance’s ICA shows.
Smith’s own projects include his Big and Phat Jazz Orchestra, which has held various weekly residencies around town over the past 10 years, and his small ensemble Collective Directive. With its collection of A-list players and top-shelf original compositions and arrangements, Big and Phat has brought the old-time tradition of " 17 men swinging " up to date in all its syncromesh thrills, mixing work of acknowledged masters like Duke Ellington, Jimmy Giuffre, and Carla Bley with some of the lesser-known composer/arranger " hired guns " of the big-band world like Ted Pease, Dick Lowell, Bob Friedman, and Phil Wilson.
Which is not to underrate Smith’s own writing. On the new A Collective Directive (BJP), he mixes various degrees of chordal, modal, and free arrangement for quintet that bring a warm spaciousness to his work while spurring him and trumpeter Doug Olsen into one fresh solo pattern after another. Ask him what various pieces are about and he’ll suggest a sunrise in Japan ( " Rokko No Hinode " ) or concern for a friend’s threatened health ( " A Prayer for Michael " ). But his true subject is the interaction of individual musical personalities. " That’s what I think free improvisation is about. What are we saying to each other right now? "
The remaining Jazz in the Sanctuary concerts for this season take place March 30 (the sextet Fractal with Bob Pilkington and Greg Hopkins), April 11 (Composers Forum), April 27 (Jack Walrath), and May 7 (Hunter/Smith Ensemble). The Church of Our Saviour is at 25 Monmouth Street in Brookline, Massachusetts; call (617) 364-2243.