By Zachary Corsa
Think “Memphis music” and your associations are sure to feel as personal as they are eclectic. This city’s worn numerous sonic faces over the years – blues and early rock wellspring, soul capital of America, garage-punk hotspot, horrorcore hip-hop cornerstone – and the fact that all these diverse influences and elements coexist so well in one mid-sized city’s landscape speaks to how special music has always been to this corner of the world, how fundamental it is to the fabric of everyday life here.
One of the Bluff City’s newer outfits on the rock end of the spectrum, The Smokin’ Jays, seem to draw strength from defying genre expectations and subverting tired reference points. Jason Vawter and Jeff Pruitt have collaborated on and off since 2010 before forming the Jays as a trio with music teacher Todd Sims rounding out the lineup in 2018. Sims’ experience with operatic works and film scores contributes a space-rock grandeur that the trio admits is heavily influenced by Pink Floyd, but there’s other touchstones at work here – classic rock, funk, soul, blues, and early hip-hop all add distinct hints of that something else that elevates the Jays’ work beyond that of psych-rock pastiche. Factor in a feisty live show and a willingness to share bills with bands of all conceivable stripes, and it’s easy to see why the Jays are gaining a foothold in the local scene, and surely beyond such confines eventually.
Vawter calls the Jays’ new full-length, Alone Together, “a lengthy labor of love”, and such precise attention to detail is immediately apparent upon listening. That level of focus is underlined by the album’s DIY nature – it was recorded in Sims’ studio, where he mastered and mixed the album himself. Much of the work was laid down prior to the pandemic’s initial quarantine, but the delay’s allowed the Jays to spend a considerable amount of time on “refining the sound with creative overdubs”. With the space and timeframe provided, the pandemic allowed the Jays to really put their best foot forward.
When asked about their relation to Memphis itself, the band tells me that the city inspires them “constantly”. Vawter and Pruitt are Memphis born and raised, and Sims is a decades-long resident. They point to the elements of soul and funk in their recorded work as evidence of how the city’s formidable musical legacy has helped them to develop their approach. A tightly-wound rhythm section, layered organ and keyboard work, and the occasional hint of horns put the message across quite clearly – The Jays are very much a Memphis band, in the best way possible, but also much more.
“Growing the music scene in Memphis starts with us as musicians”, Vawter tells me when asked about the Jays’ place in the local indie milieu. The band sees themselves as “a group of eclectic individuals on the verge of something amazing”, and such confidence is palpable and exciting. “Musicians and artists should build each other up.” With positivity, ambition, and a unique approach to what makes a “Memphis band” tick in 2023, the Smokin’ Jays are an embodiment of the high principles they preach.
You might also be interested in Memphis Music: Famous Memphis Musicians | Memphis Singers