On its second offering, Detroit's James Hughes/Jimmy Smith Quintet expands on its meld of hard- and post-bop. Initially inspired by the grand Motor City jazz scene of the 1950s and early '60s, these players update and extend that tradition with excellent writing, arranging, and playing for the 21st century. Ever Up & Onward is the band's sophomore offering, adding nine more tunes to their catalog of classy, soulful originals, as well as a trio of uniquely interpreted standards. The sprightly, hard-swinging hard bop of "Dots" is a fine example of everything this group does right, with a loping, slightly staggered head, taut solos by Smith and pianist Paul Kelly, and Hughes, whose alto digs out the blues feel in the tune's core. The Motown sensibility at the heart of "East Detroit" -- established by drummer Nate Winn's eternal groove and bassist Takashi Iio's solid walk -- is given wings by Smith's song-like trumpet solo. The reading of "There Is a Balm in Gilead" contains a striking chart, featuring gorgeous impressionistic playing by Kelly and a deeply moving solo by Iio. Smith keeps the melody centered, but Hughes stretches it blues-wise to avoid too much reverence. "Keepin' It Real" and "Transgender Fender Bender" both offer proof of the band's ability to generate heat. The back-to-back saxophone and trumpet breaks on the former are nearly airborne, while the groove quotient in the latter is almost funky -- despite its knotty head. The set closes with a pair of standards. The best of these, "I'll Remember April," showcases some lighthearted yet compelling invention: Winn's Latin vamps, the restrained tenor and trumpet dissonance, and the fat, middle-register piano chord voicings deliver new energy to this nugget. Since the release of From Here on Out in 2013, JSJHQ have earned more bandstand experience, reflecting a growing confidence in their compositions. As a result, Ever Up & Onward more than lives up to its title.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek