Friday, February 03, 2006

Black History Month-Jimmy Smith

I met Jimmy Smith in the late 90s. Towards the end of his life(He died Feb 2005)he was playing with a bass player, but when I saw him the several times he came to Austin, he was kicking his own bass lines on the organ. Phillp Upchurch joined him on guitar.

Approaching the stage, Smith looked like any skinny, frail, elderly gentleman in his 70s, but when he got behind that organ, he started looking and playing like the 30 year old he was on all those Blue Note recordings he made in the 50s.

I got to The Mercury on 6th St. in Austin about 2 hours early with a copy of his Crazy! Baby record in hand. I wasn't sure what to expect. Smith was very economical with his words, and at times could be rather difficult to talk to.

I camped out right next to the stage in the small club so I could see what he was doing at the organ.

All night my eyes were glued on him, his hands and his feet, just respecting him. I couldn't believe that this was the Jimmy Smith, the man, the legend, 'The Cat'-right here, just a few feet away from me, tearing it up as he always had.

Jimmy Smith was born in Norristown, PA on December 8,1928.

Smith started out as a jazz pianist. And as stated earlier he became interested in what soon-to-be fellow jazz organist Wild Bill Davis was doing on organ.

Early 2005, in an interview with Downbeat Magazine, he stated the main encouragement of switching to organ was that he got tired of tuning the pianos that he would have to play in all the clubs!

Most of the early jazz organists directly carried their piano technique over to the organ, not emphasizing the new possibilities available to them at the organ.

Wild Bill Davis developed his technique specifically towards the Hammond organ as a new instrument, but more in a big band style-fat chords to emulate a typical brass section on fire. The famous arrangement that Count Basie played of 'Satin Doll' was arranged by Davis, and he emulated it on organ.

Smith started off that way himself and always kept that style of playing in his vocabulary, but in addition to being influenced by Davis, he was also influenced by the bebop sound of Charlie Parker.

Many jazz musicians of time were influenced by Parker. It was a more harmonically complex and a more linear style of playing, and it was a sound that needed to be heard from the organ so that it would gain proper respect by the rest of the jazz world at that time. And Smith further showed the world what a Hammond organ could do, in capable hands.

With his many, many, Blue Note releases, Smith really did usher in a new age of 'Soul Jazz'. Not only was he an influence in respect to jazz or jazz organ alone, but in all forms of music in respect to the way he approached the instrument.

Smith quickly became the one to catch, and he still is.

One of his first Blue Note recordings was 'The Sermon' which featured guitarist Kenny Burrell, sax man Lou Donaldson, and trumpeter Lee Morgan.

The title track is a Smith original, a slow F Blues. It's a nod to 'The Preacher', a composition by pianist Horace Silver, who was another big influence on Smith. The tune shows Smith's clear command with the jazz blues.

Smith's solo is economical. The liner notes suggest that this, being one of Smith's first studio recordings, may have caused Smith to play somewhat cautious.

Even if he was, he was not at all short on delivering the groove and soul Smith was known for. The solo shows the basics of what makes up the Jimmy Smith sound. Also interesting is the impromptu 'shout' that the horns came up with before Smith finishes it out-a tribute to the legenedary trumpeter Miles Davis.

If the first track was economical, 'J.O.S.' is a burning gas guzzler from the beginning. Another F Blues, it provides more evidence of Smith's lightning fast bebop style that earned him the nickname 'The Cat', and it is heavy on the organ's percussion effect. By percussion, I don't mean a rhythm section on the organ, but a transient that the Hammond organ featured that could accent the melody of the pitch with a high pitched harmonic.

The beautiful tune 'Flamingo', featured in Count Basie's band, features Morgan and Burrell on soloing chores. Smith doesn't solo here-yet the chordal harmonies and pads he serves along with the variances he chooses in the Leslie speed-Leonard Feather's liner notes refer to his playing as 'lush carpeting'-provides a haunting beauty for a beautiful ballad and is a fitting way to end this jam session.

Many of the other early Blue Note recordings are also of superior playing and artistic quality and show Smith getting more than comfortable with the recording studio medium.

One recording of note, 'Six Views of the Blues', though also recorded in the late 1950s, was never released until just a few years ago, and is a very exemplory recording that again shows the many faces of the Hammond organ in a jazz context.

Another important recording is the already mentioned Crazy! Baby. It displays a unique arrangement of 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home', cited in the liner notes for a Jimmy Smith compilation 'Retrospective' as possibly the first example of world music, further evidence of Smith as an innovator.

The 'Retrospective' CD, incidentally, is a 4 CD disc set recently released by Blue Note that shows the highlights of his Blue Note years.

His time at Blue Note not only secured fame for himself but also the Blue Note label. By the end of his contract Blue Note was a force to be reckoned with and was the place to be for many new young jazz artists.

Smith's recordings on Verve reached a wider audience, and the Hammond organ was placed in a variety of contexts, including a big band.

The artistic merit of these recordings is sometimes questionable, but my personal favorite is 'Root Down', recorded live in the early 1970s just after Smith's move to California. Here we have Smith still playing in his signature style, but instead of playing with seasoned jazz men, he's playing with musicians that are more influenced by rock and r and b. A very funky recording, it documents one of the few times that Smith has recorded with an electric bass.

The benefit of recording with Verve is that it gave him a wider distribution of audience. Blue Note was primarily marketed to an Afro-American and jazz crowd, where as Verve was marketed more toward the White population.

As a result, many people are at least aware of Jimmy Smith.

Returning to my own meeting with Smith, he seemed to really be moved by my star-gazing. He would give me a scowl as if to say, 'what are you looking at', then he would start laughing.

When he got off stage he acted like he was going to run into me and then put his arm around me and laughed.

The current reigning jazz organ king Joey DeFrancesco, who befriended Smith just before his death says that Smith just doesn't do that...I was honored for sure.

When he took his break that night, Smith left the stage and he went to the back of the club. I let him do what he needed to do, give him respect. When he came back he got that scowl on his face again and asked me to push him up to the stage by his back end! I just fell apart and started laughing.

And he signed my record.

Smith and DeFrancesco recorded a live impromptu recording around the year of 2000, 'Incredible!', marking the first time that Smith had ever been recorded with another organist. Even though the prodigy DeFrancesco had mentored under Smith since he was a young child, DeFrancesco states that this event sparked a closer friendship which extended until Smith's death on February 2005.

Smith lost his wife a few months later after 'Incredible!' was recorded and shortly thereafter moved to Arizona, where the native Philadelphian DeFrancesco also had already made his hometown.

They recorded together shortly before his death 'Legacy', in which DeFrancesco gave much respect to the master. It is an incredible CD which features the Banda Brothers along with Joey's longtime trio of Paul Bollenback and Byron Landham. A video featuring the making of this recording is due sometime this year, on Concord Records, the label DeFrancesco records on.

After they had recorded this CD, plans were made for Joey to produce a solo recording for Smith. They also made plans to tour together. DeFrancesco left Arizona for another tour date and the next thing he knew Smith had passed, of natural causes.

For those shows where they were to be featured together, DeFrancesco had an extra organ at the show with a spotlight focused on it all night, in memory of the 'The Cat'.

For more info: -a website maintained by Jimmy Smith's manager, a work in progress. -click on the 'JOS' pictures to see rare pictures of Joey DeFrancesco and Jimmy Smith and Jimmy Smith's own organ, now in DeFrancesco's possession. -Pete Fallico's biography on Jimmy Smith a story that NPR did on Jimmy Smith's passing.