Jazz music, news and views

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Sum Serious Smith

About a year and a half ago, the great Hammond B3 organist Jimmy Smith passed away but not before he was honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. His story is the stuff of legends, having emerged as a fully formed virtuoso in the mid-1950s. He began as a student of the piano but was drawn to the organ after hearing Wild Bill Davis perform. He found an organ dealer in Philadelphia and paid him a dollar per hour to play on it. After finally saving enough to buy his own organ, Smith kept it in a warehouse. According to the liner notes of the Verve compilation, Talkin' Verve: the Roots of Acid Jazz, Smith says:
I left my organ there because I didn't want people to know that I couldn't play it. I would go there every day to practice. I'd just stay there all day, fiddling with the stops and messing with this beast.
Smith emerged from that warehouse and into the jazz world about a year later in 1955 as a startlingly powerful organ voice. While we tend to attribute this transformation to some inexplicable, innate gift, Smith's inspiration was also accompanied by plenty of perspiration. He had studied theory and harmony at the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia when he was studying piano. When he practiced organ, he drew a diagram of the bass pedals to place in front of him so he could play without looking at his feet. He had both the muse and a method.

Smith's best known work is for Blue Note in the '50s and '60s, then moved to Verve in 1963 and released a number of hit albums for nearly a decade. The new Milestone Profiles compilation gathers some gems from his catalogue with that label that find him in good form, though his performance is a bit more controlled than his earliest take-no-prisoners blowing sessions with Blue Note. "Here Comes C.T." is certainly a highlight, penned by a longtime associate of Smith, guitarist Kenny Burrell. The axeman on this track, however, is Phil Upchurch, who gives a lyrical, loping solo with just enough brightness and blues. Smith's own solo revels in the more liquid sounds of the B3. The large ensemble chart, "Sum Serious Blues," recorded in 1993, contains some emotive playing from Smith within the first couple minutes. Herman Riley's tenor is raspy, tearful but certainly not without a dash of joy.

A revisitation of "The Sermon" is the only encounter on record (a live one, at that) between Smith and saxophonist Eddie Harris at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco in 1981. Harris has been stronger on other recordings, but his soulfulness is always certain, and he throws more wood on the fire in the fourth minute (when he activates an electronic attachment to his sax which provides a light harmonization). The driving swing is the main dish here, with the organ bass lines pushing both Harris and even drummer Kenny Dixon along. Fans of the Smith-Burrell-Turrentine fellowship will enjoy "Midnight Special," originally documented on Blue Note's Midnight Special and redone at a live recording at Fat Tuesday's for the Fourmost album on Milestone. Smith swells and shrinks away mischievously during the head before Burrell's well-structured solo, but it's Smith's own statements that stand out, as fiery as bluesy.

Smith's style since he hit his stride in the '50s never changed drastically, so the listener will not find anything unusual for him on this compilation -- just the same soulful grooves that have always characterized him. What is extraordinary about his career, however, is how he seemed to materialize on the scene fully formed, as mentioned earlier. He had superhuman chops and a keen musical sense for what had earlier been considered a rather weird instrument. The organ was something of a novelty before Smith expanded its vocabulary and colors, giving it new currency in the jazz world. Smith's revolution of the B3 is two-pronged: reconceiving a rather cumbersome, unusual instrument and popularizing it at the same time.

In 1962, Jimmy Smith was the first organist ever to win the Downbeat Reader's Poll -- in the "miscellaneous" instruments category. Today the organ has its own category, and it is guaranteed that any player that appears in that category in today's polls owes a debt to J.O.S.

Buy Milestone Profiles: Jimmy Smith.


  • At 9/27/2006 9:19 PM, Blogger girl said…

    Hi Kellen!! I'm from Orange County and listen to KJAZZ all the time. I'm even a member (3 years so far!!). Anyway I have just transferred from my community college to UCSB and I was hoping maybe you would know what the jazz scene is over here (clubs, radio stations)? Of course Straight-Ahead!

    Well Thanks & Keep Up The Great Work @ Kjazz 88.1fm!



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