Ashleigh Smith Extols the 'Sunkissed' Beauty of Jazz

Kauwuane Burton
Ashleigh Smith

The former backup singer for Chrisette Michele releases her first album for Concord Records.

After spending five years as a backup vocalist for Chrisette Michele, Ashleigh Smith says she took to heart one piece of advice from the Grammy Award-winning singer: "She always said, 'Know who you are and maintain that when others try to tell you who you are.'"

Smith lustily embraces that advice on Sunkissed (due Aug. 26). The album is the 27-year-old’s first for Concord Records, which signed the singer after she won the 2014 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocals Competition. “It was the payoff of years of study and feeling like I finally mastered in my own right what jazz is to me,” Smith says of winning. “And that’s that jazz encompasses not just one thing but everything. That’s the beauty of it.”

Latin and samba rhythms, R&B/soul/funk, bossa-nova grooves and more bring Smith’s colorful version of jazz to life on Sunkissed. The mesmerizing set opens with lead single “Best Friends” (above), whose buoyant vibe takes some of the sting out of the fading romance that Smith is singing about. Empowering young girls of color to revel in their beauty is the focus of the title track, while universal love is the theme of the soul/jazz-fused “The World Is Calling.” Rounding out the project are resonating versions of Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile,” the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and her former boss’ 2007 R&B ballad “Love Is You.”

“It’s nerve-racking to do a cover,” says Smith, whose personal playlist includes Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Hiatus Kaiyote, Kendrick Lamar and labelmate Esperanza Spalding. “But to do one by your boss? What if it doesn’t go well? Thankfully, Chrisette loved it.”

Further boosting Sunkissed’s arresting authenticity: new artist Smith being given the opportunity to co-write five of the album’s 10 tracks with longtime collaborators bassist Nigel Rivers and guitarist Joel Cross. The trio met as classmates at the University of North Texas, from which classical-turned-jazz vocal major Smith graduated in 2013.

“I had songs I’d written with my friends,” says the Dallas-based Smith. “But when the label asked me what kind of sound I wanted, I was prepared for the opposite [reaction]. I wanted them to get who I was organically. I thought maybe [label execs] would step out on faith -- and they did.”

Moving forward, Smith is determined to erase the perception of jazz being an antiquated genre. “I’m in my 20s like Bryson Tiller and other pop acts out now,” she explains. “But I’m happy that I get to be one of the fresh new faces of jazz, proving that it’s still very much alive and relevant. That’s my charge.”


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