Key Figure

Organist Jimmy Smith shows both sides

By Greg Cahill

JAZZ TRUMPET legend Miles Davis once called organist Jimmy Smith the greatest musician he knew. Indeed, a short-lived 1955 Smith trio once featured sax god John Coltrane, and Smith revolutionized the jazz keyboard with his way-cool Hammond B-3 sound. And while Smith has lingered on the fringe of popular music after making his name in the jazz world with such classic Blue Note albums as 1957’s The Sermon and 1960’s Back to the Chicken Shack, this stellar organist has remained a major influence. A new generation of soul-jazz devotees–including Medeski, Martin, and Wood; Galactic; John Scofield; Will Bernard; and especially hipster icon John Lurie (during his Get Shorty soundtrack period)–have tapped the master’s grooves for inspiration. In 1994, the Beastie Boys sampled Smith’s “Root Down.”

Now, after a five-year layoff, a pair of great new discs–the trendily titled Dot Com Blues (Verve/Bluethumb) and Fourmost Return (Fantasy/Milestone), a newly released live set recorded in 1990–spotlight the incredible talent of this 76-year-old musical giant.

Dot Com Blues provides Smith with a crack trio of backup jazz musicians–guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Reggie McBride, and drummer Harvey Mason–and then pairs the keyboardist on a series of tracks with an all-star lineup of guest blues performers that includes Etta James, Dr. John, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, and Keb’ Mo’, as well as the Texacali Horns. The result is one of the best jazz-soul/blues albums of the year, although at times Smith is relegated to little more than a support role for his guests–for instance, this version of Taj Mahal’s “Strut,” with Taj on lead vocals, is virtually identical to the one released on Taj’s recent studio album.

Thankfully, Smith and his band get plenty of elbow room on a handful of unaccompanied tracks, including Smith’s own “Eight Counts for Rita,” the chestnut “C.C. Rider,” and a glorious almost nine-minute version of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.”

That last track also appears on Fourmost Return, recorded in 1990 at Fat Tuesday’s in New York (a seven-track set, Fourmost, from the same session was released a decade ago). This swinging little set glides along easily and reunites Smith with tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, guitarist Kenny Burrell (both veterans of Smith’s successful ’60s quartets), and drummer Grady Tate. The band once again tools up “Back to the Chicken Shack,” which first paired Turrentine and Smith nearly 30 years earlier.

Absolutely amazing stuff and a must-have for any soul-jazz fan.

Spin du Jour

Various Artists Have You Had Your Vitamin B-3 Today? (Label M)

Organ jazz, once maligned by critics, has gone on to stand the test of time, veteran producer Joel Dorn rightly declares in the liner notes of this nine-track soul-jazz primer. Jimmy Smith is showcased on “Jumpin’ the Blues” from his classic 1960 Blue Note album Midnight Special, as are celebrated organists Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott (teamed here with longtime collaborator Stanley Turrentine), John Patton, and Carl Wilson. The illustrious sidemen include Grant Green, Ike Quebec, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Stitt, and Yusef Lateef. You simply can’t go wrong with this bracing collection.–G.C.

From the March 29-April 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

Previous articleBest Everyday Stuff
Next articleKenneth Cleaver