Richard Smith discovers the reward in taking artistic risks

After a successful career in the contemporary jazz world filled with critical acclaim and best-selling albums, Studio/Jazz Guitar faculty Richard Smith wanted to try something a bit different for his newest release, Tangos.

“The music business had been going on such a funny trajectory,” Smith said of the time leading up to the recording of Tangos. “A lot of old paradigms had been torn down so I thought I should make a record that chases all these exciting sounds in nuevo tango, electronica and other newer genres.”

Smith’s inspiration came from his recent tour, in which he performed in 11 different countries. Smith says traveling and performing with a variety of musicians widened the pool of influences he drew up for Tangos.

The inspiration also came from familiar places, too — like Smith’s own bandmates.

“I was telling my keyboard player, Tico Pierhagen, how much I like tango, and he said, ‘Why don’t we take one of your regular songs and I’ll show you how to tangofy it?’” Smith recalled. “That changed everything. It sent me down another road, and I began to discover nuevo tango music.”

These newfound sounds encouraged the guitarist to consider approaching his music in a different way.

However, Smith soon discovered that embracing a different approach and sound to his music wasn’t without its challenges. Smith admits he reinvented his entire approach to songwriting, including working with a different set of rules and breaking away from previous habits. Because of this process, Tangos took three years to complete.

Despite the challenges with writing the record, Smith managed to capture a global sound and retain his soulful West Coast jazz influences on the album.

“People can be afraid to take a risk, when taking risks are exactly what they should be doing” Smith says. “I’ve had hits in the Smooth Jazz genre, and so this risk was so far out of the comfort zone for my label that they didn’t pick it up. I really believed in this project, so I put it out myself — and all indications are it’s going to do better and be more successful than anything I’ve done before.”

Smith gives credit to his teaching career for helping him gain the confidence to step outside of his musical comfort zones. Smith tells his students that self-doubt and fear are a musician’s worst enemies, and that mindset continually pushed Smith to trust his artistic instinct while recording Tangos.

“When you teach, you learn twice,” Smith says, adding that his students awaken his creative and competitive juices. “My students are an amazing source of information and challenge me to try new things. As a matter of fact, one student turned me on to some electronica, and that genre is now a huge cog in my creative wheel.”

Smith’s risks appear to have paid off; three weeks after the album was released, Tangos was ranked in the Top 10 of many contemporary jazz and independent instrumental music charts. The reception to Tangos and Smith’s newly refined sound have convinced the guitarist to pursue more experimentation with his next releases.

“I think experimentation really gets to the core of being an artist,” Smith said. “It helps you develop into a leader, and a leader has to be out in front to take chances. I’ve been preaching this to my students for 20 years, and it’s really interesting to truly follow that example for the first time in my career.”