A Tear to a Smile holds a unique place in Roy Ayers' vast catalog. Released in 1975, it follows a string of albums that began in 1971 with He's Coming where the great vibraphonist and bandleader pioneered his own seamless blend of funky jazz. They all had grooves, but jazz arrangements dominated; vocals were used only as accents on his instrumental mix. The two albums that immediately preceded this one were the stellar Virgo Red and Change Up the Groove, both issued in 1974. What is immediately apparent on the latter of these is how effortless Ayers made it all seem; and why, perhaps, for his own artistic development, he needed to change direction. Having always loved soul and being deeply interested the newly emergent R&B of groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, and Parliament, the music on Tear to a Smile is a logical extension of what he'd accomplished earlier. The funk and proto-disco sounds on this set are easily as sophisticated as his jazz-funk records, but there are key differences. The place of vocals on the album is a great starting point. With talented singers such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Edwin Birdsong, Debbie Burrell, and Carolyn Byrd taking prominent roles on the set, the listener's attention goes directly to the human voice. That said, the instrumental quotient is equally high, with other players here such as bassist William Allen (who wrote or co-wrote most of these tracks and acted as the session's arranger), pianist Harry Whitaker, and drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, among others.
The set kicks off with the Carl Clay-Wayne Garfield funk number "2000 Black," with Ayers on the Arp, a nasty bassline, and a killer backing chorus. Ayers' and Garfield's lead vocals lead a deceptively tough dancefloor number. Ayers' own "Magic Lady" melds mystic-sounding synths, sophisticated melodies, and vocals, and a laid-back, breezy backbeat into a first-class seduction tune. His vibes, in fill spots between verse lines, and a full of horn section (with Jon Faddis!) punching up the rhythm section are simply ace. There's a stellar reading of EW&F's "That's the Way of the World," that's jazzier than the original and features a killer vibes workout by Ayers. Other notables on the set are Allen's tough, uptempo funker "Ebony Blaze," which utilizes some of the Afro-beat techniques employed Fela Anikulapo Kuti (whom Ayers would later collaborate with) that reveal both Allen and Ayers were doing some deep and wide-ranging listening. Another Allen winner is the elegant and atmospheric "Time and Space," with a fine vocal by Bridgewater. Hard funk makes an appearance in "No Question," and the title track, which closes the set, is outer-space funky soul at its best, and provides a sonic hint at the direction Ayers' sound would take on his follow-up album, the classic Mystic Voyage. This is a stellar meld of soul-funk with some wonderfully sophisticated, jazzy overtones. As transitional moments go, this one is an unqualified success.