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Jimmy Smith

Four Classic Albums (Second Set)


AVID JAZZ AMSC1381 [82:11 + 75:56]


1-5: The Incredible Jimmy Smith - Live At Club “Baby Grand ” Vol. 1’
1. Introduction
2. Sweet Georgia Brown
3. Where Or When
4. The Preacher
5. Rosetta

6-9: The Incredible Jimmy Smith - Live At Club “Baby Grand” Vol. 2
6. Caravan
7. Love Is A Many Splendored Thing
8. Get Happy
9. It’s Allright With Me

Jimmy Smith (organ), Thornel Schwartz (guitar),

Donald Bailey (drums). Live at the Club ‘Baby Grand’,

Wilmington, Delaware, August 4, 1956.

1-3: Groovin’ At Smalls’ Paradise Vol. 1
1. After Hours
2. Slightly Monkish
3. Laura
4-8: Groovin’ At Smalls’ Paradise Vol. 2
4. Imagination
5. Just Friends
6. Lover Man
7. Body & Soul
8. Indiana

Jimmy Smith (organ), Eddie McFadden (guitar),

Donald Bailey (drums). Live at Smalls’ Paradise, NYC,

November 15, 1957.

Two classic early albums by Smith, playing at something like his very best in front of enthusiastic audiences, from whom he clearly took some of his energy. This is Smith before arrangers and musical directors were often to over-produce his music, and should be relished for this.

Both the parents of Smith (1928-2005) – some sources give 1925 as the year of his birth - were pianists and the young Jimmy was working, when only 6, in a song and dance act with his father around the clubs of Pennsylvania. His father gave him piano lessons and the future organist absorbed then so well that when around the age of 9 or 10 he won a talent contest (playing boogie-woogie piano) on a Philadelphia radio station. In the early 1950s he was playing piano in R & B bands around Philadelphia.

However, on hearing, in 1954, Wild Bill Davis playing a Hammond organ at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, Smith was so attracted by the sound that he bought his first organ in the same year. Davis’s playing was grounded in the big bands of the Swing era (and the blues); but Smith rapidly developed a new and distinctive way of playing the Hammond organ that fused blues (and gospel) with bebop. He took over from Davis – and others – the line-up of organ, guitar and drums. Smith used the pedals to sustain a walking bass, and over it played dense chords with the left hand and fleet melodies with the right. It was a winning formula (which became negatively formulaic when copied by a host of lesser imitators and, indeed, in some of Smith’s own later work). Smith put the Hammond organ at the forefront of the popular end of the jazz idiom. Smith’s organ trio gigged around Philadelphia clubs in 1955 and made its New York debut in Harlem (at Smalls’ Paradise) in 1956 and was soon signed by Blue Note. Smith recorded 30 albums for the label between 1956 and 1963 – before moving to Verve. Volumes 1 & 2 of Live At Club “Baby Grand” were the third and fourth of Smith’s Blue Note albums, Groovin’ At Smalls’ Paradise (originally issued as a 2 LP set) was his thirteenth.

In an article he wrote for Hammond Times, Smith said “while others think of the organ as a full orchestra … I wanted that single line sound like a trumpet, a tenor or an alto saxophone”. And he certainly found it.

These two reissued albums (each originally occupying two LPs) catch Smith in full flight – the metaphor feels right as his organ takes off, surges and soars. Though both Schwartz and (especially) McFadden are decent guitarists and Donald Bailey does his job to something like perfection, Smith is unmistakably the star, the dominant voice. (On this reissue, incidentally, Volume 1 of Groovin’ at Smalls’ Paradise is missing one track, ‘My Funny Valentine’, because, being over 11 minutes long, it couldn’t be squeezed onto two already very full CDs, with a total playing time of 160:07).

Complete with a spoken introduction by Mitch Thomas, then a DJ at WTUX, a Wilmington radio station, and the (not overly distracting) sounds of an enthusiastic audience, Live At Club “Baby Grand” is warmly atmospheric. On the opening track, a rapid nine-and-a-half-minute version of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, the speed and fluidity of Smith’s right-hand runs are dazzling. The intensity and excitement drop a little on a slowish version of the Rodgers and Hart standard ‘Where or When’; where some of Smith’s textures are, not unattractively, on the lush side. Schwartz (like Bailey, he was originally from Philadelphia) gets a bit more of a look in here, though to no very exceptional effect. Only guitarists as talented as Grant Green, Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell were ever really able to get out from under Smith’s shadow. The immediately ensuing reading of Horace Silver’s ‘The Preacher’ is a quintessential Smith performance, as soaked in blues as any R & B recording, but given individuality by Smith’s boppish, horn-like lines. Smith had previously (in February of 1956) made a studio recording of ‘The Preacher’ issued onA New Sound … A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, Volume 1. That version was a mere 4:35 long. This live recording, a splendid, sustained hard-bop reading, is almost 12 minutes long and never flags. ‘Rosetta’, a tune by Earl Hines, is played with greater subtlety, though I wouldn’t swap it for any of Hines’ own versions.

On Volume 2 of Live At Club “Baby Grand”, Smith uses the extensive resources of the Hammond organ to colour a version of ‘Caravan’ (by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol) on which the work of Donald Bailey at the drums adds many pleasing touches and Schwartz takes what is, along with his contribution on ‘Get Happy’ one of his best solos on the album. (After leaving Smith – I can’t see that he recorded with Smith after this session – (Schwartz (1927-1977) seems always to have worked in blues-influenced jazz, recording with organists such as Jimmy McGriff, Johnny Hammond Smith and Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes. He led just one session of his own, Soul Cookin’ (1962) on which Donald Bailey was present as was the highly original organist Larry Young – disguised, presumably for contractual reasons, as ‘Lawrence Old’. Bailey (1933-2013) worked with Smith until 1964. His subsequent career embraced many varied musical situations. He recorded with, for example, The Three Sounds, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Rowles and Carmen McRae; he made at least two albums under his own name – on one of which, Blueprints of Jazz (2006) the personnel included two post-modernists, trumpeter Charles Tolliver and tenorist Odean Pope). ‘Love is a Many-Splendored Thing’ (a tune first heard in the 1955 film of the same name) doesn’t seem to inspire Smith greatly and eventually he seems largely to forget the melody and chords of the song and settle for an insistent rhythmic pattern over which many different colours are drawn from the organ. Smith finds more rewards in Harold Arlen’s ‘Get Happy’ (written c. 1929/30) which has long been a favourite of jazz musicians – as evidenced by recordings by Art Tatum (1939), Bud Powell (1950), Oscar Peterson (1951), Eddie Costa (1956), Ella Fitzgerald (1959) and Brad Mehldau (2004), to name but a few. Cole Porter’s song ‘It’s Allright With Me’ (from the 1953 musical Can-Can) soon became fashionable amongst jazz musicians. There were recordings by Sonny Rollins (Work Time) and Errol Garner (Concert by the Sea ) at much the same time as this performance by Smith. The trio of Smith, Schwartz and Bailey, unusually for Smith, take the song a little slower than some do, but fill their account of it with emotional expressiveness, much of it on the gentle side.

The two volumes of Live At Club “Baby Grand” contain a lot of good music-making and are never less than interesting. ButGroovin’ At Smalls’ Paradise, which occupies disc 2 in this Avid reissue is, at its best, on a higher level still, even if missing one of its tracks for good reason (see above). This, surely, is one of the essential Jimmy Smith albums. Again, the organist is in his favourite kind of environment, a relatively small club where he could interact with his audience. Smalls’ Paradise was a Harlem club in a basement on Seventh Avenue, which ran from 1926 to 1986 under various owners. Amongst its many marks of distinction, one unexpected one is that a young Malcolm X was a waiter there c.1942/3. The club was once described as “a sort of hot and heavy speakeasy”. It certainly hosted some “hot and heavy” music when the Jimmy Snith trio played there in November 1957. Others who had played there included Elmer Snowdon, Luis Russell, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Jo Jones, Benny Carter, Sidney Bechet and Ray Charles. One wonders whether perhaps Jimmy Smith, guitarist Eddie McFadden and drummer Donald Bailey were inspired by their sense of the venue’s historical ‘ghosts’ (Leonard Feather’s original sleeve note says that this was the first album ever recorded there).

When (above) I described Groovin’ At Smalls’ Paradise as an essential Jimmy Smith album, I was thinking of three tracks in particular – ‘After Hours’, ‘Slightly Monkish’ and ‘Lover Man’. These tracks alone would be more than enough to justify the cost of this 2-CD set from Avid. Elsewhere, some of the ballads, such as ‘Laura’ and ‘Imagination’ are played with such baroque extravagance that they become, for my taste, somewhat over the top and inflated. ‘After H ours’ is an outstanding piece of modern blues playing, even by Smith’s high standards. The tribute to the great Thelonious captures something of his mischievous use of dissonance, even if, by halfway through the track it sounds far more characteristic of Smith than of Monk. ‘Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)’ gets an intensely emotional reading, with Smith largely resisting the kind of extravagant elaboration that so often spoils his ballad performances. This tune by Roger (‘Ram’) Ramirez – himself and interestingly eccentric pianist (and occasional organist) when I heard him in the 1970s – and Jimmy Davis was evidently interesting Smith around this time. Some four months earlier (in August 1957) he had recorded another version of the tune (issued on House Party, 1958), with altoist Lou Donaldson added to the trio of Smith, McFadden and Bailey.

Any admirer of Smith who doesn’t have these albums will surely want to take this chance to acquire them. For any lover of modern jazz whose shelves contain no recordings by Jimmy Smith, this is the ideal place to begin.

Glyn Pursglove

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