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[whitespace] Smith Dobson Key Player: Local pianist Smith Dobson is in perfect harmony with a new band and gigs with such notables as Eddie Marshall and Bob Brookmeyer.

The In Sideman

Versatile Bay Area pianist Smith Dobson branches out with a new group

By Rob Pratt

PIANIST Smith Dobson is best known to San Jose audiences for his 21-year stint as Garden City's music director, a gig that had him sitting in with a new group of players every week. Not that playing with a rotating lineup is a bad thing--Dobson says it keeps him "open to possibilities"--but it does have drawbacks.

"I guess I had relaxed into a state of never being completely comfortable, and it always kept me on edge for what was going to happen," Dobson says, speaking by phone from North Shore Tahoe's Cal-Neva Lodge, where's he's playing a handful of dates. "So [drummer] George Marsh finally convinced me that we could put together our own thing. It's me and George and a fine young bass player named Dan Robbins." The group has already finished up its self-produced debut recording, set to hit stores in the next few months.

The lineup for Dobson's jazz festival set, though, features one of his longest-standing groups. Wife Gail and daughter Sasha sit in on vocals, with son "Little" Smith on vibraphone, Michael Zissman on bass and Vince Laviano on drums.


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"Big" Smith Dobson started playing piano at age 4, though he says his musical training started right from birth. His mother was a jazz singer, and his father played piano and accordion, drawing influences from pre-bebop heroes like Teddy Wilson.

"I was learning about harmony even before I could talk, singing along with my mother," Dobson says. "My real love and interest has always been harmony and how it moves around. The first time I heard some good bebop--must have been Charlie Parker--I was around 7 or 8 and it just took my head off."

Harmony is still the key to Dobson's approach. While other players "make" chord changes while improvising--selecting scales to color the harmony of a song--Dobson exploits them. His chordings are dramatic and expressive, and by pairing such detailed left-hand backdrops with cascading right-hand melodies, his piano playing has an elegant effect, a quiet sophistication that has made him a favored sideman.

Steady gigs with Eddie Marshall have taken Dobson around the United States in the past year. But lately it's a new chance to work alongside top jazz composer and trombone player Bob Brookmeyer that has Dobson heading back to the practice room to make sure his chops are in a league with a true jazz master.

"I had played with [drummer] Michael Steffens years ago, and when we got back in touch he said, 'Would you like to play with Bob Brookmeyer?'" Dobson says. "I was shaking and said I would but that it would never happen. But even though Bob and I have never played together, he took me on, sound unheard, on Mike's word. I feel like I'm playing with a direct lineage of jazz royalty."

Smith Dobson performs at the San Jose Jazz Festival Saturday, Aug. 12, at 1:45pm on the Xilinx Tech Museum Stage, Market Street and Park Avenue, San Jose. Admission is free. (888.SAN.JOSE.)

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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