Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jimmy Smith “Testifyin’”

Organ great Jimmy Smith (1925-2005) spent a large part of his career recording large-group, ostensibly commercial, efforts for the MGM family of labels, from 1962’s noteworthy Bashin’ (on Verve, with Oliver Nelson) to 1973’s ultra-grooving and totally worthwhile Black Smith (on Pride).

Despite several small-group classics made during those years (Organ Grinder Swing, The Boss and, of course, Root Down), it had been nearly a lifetime since the small-group Blue Note classics like The Sermon, Midnight Special and Back at the Chicken Shack that not only made Smith a jazz star but actually made the Hammond B-3 an important sound for jazz.

By 1974, not only was the face of jazz changing distinctly from whatever it was before, but the Hammond B-3 was distinctively falling out of favor among jazz listeners. It was no longer cool to play this 500-pound elephant when a variety of new, comparatively lightweight (and easier to travel) electronic keyboard sounds – from the RMI Rocksichord and Moog Synthesizer to the Farifisa organ and the Fender Rhodes – made the Hammond B-3 organ sound like your grandfather’s kind of music. Many jazz organ players made the switch to the electronic keyboards. Or they just stopped playing altogether and faded away into obscurity.

Like many jazzers of his generation, Jimmy Smith had relocated in the early 1970s from New York City to Los Angeles – where more musical opportunity seemed to present itself. While others went into the session cesspool, Jimmy Smith stuck to the organ and even opened his own supper club, where he’d often feature himself fronting a small group, doing what he did best – better than anyone else, too, even by his own admission – playing the hell out of the Hammond B-3 organ. He continued drawing audiences to marvel at his thing. But even though he must have thought he was a relic from days gone by, no one could deny he wasn’t still “the boss,” the absolute boss, of the B-3.

With the market shifts and lack of label interest in organ music, Jimmy Smith and his wife/manager, Lola, launched their own label, Mojo, and released a whopping two albums during 1974-75, truly the darkest days of Hammond jazz. The first of these albums, Paid In Full, is a 1974 studio session with the great Ray Crawford on guitar, Larry Gales on bass, Donald Dean on drums and Buck Clarke on percussion. The second album, Jimmy Smith ‘75 (mimicking a number of Westbound jazz album titles of the same year) combined a live October 1974 trio performance featuring Crawford and Dean in Tel Aviv, Israel, of all places, with a rocking 1974 session that added several percussionists to the group.

Both of these albums have finally been combined to produce a CD titled Testifyin', a terrific example of the little-known period of Jimmy Smith's music that deserves to be much better known.

The four long tracks that comprise Paid In Full make this CD worth every cent. Both Crawford and Dean were along for the ride on Smith’s remarkable 1972 album Bluesmith - but here the vibe is distinctly different. Perhaps it’s the fact that Bluesmith bassist, the great Leroy Vinnegar, is swapped out here for the somewhat more contemporary Larry Gales (1936-95). Gales, already a veteran of the Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Sonny Stitt and, most notably, Thelonius Monk bands, adds something a little different to Smith’s groove, something that really spurs Smith and company on to make their electrified sounds sound more electrifying in a more electrified age.

But what is even more substantial here is the prominence Smith gives to guitarist Ray Crawford (1924-97) – who shines particularly on “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” something that seems conceived especially for him – which is good considering the lack of solo opportunities Ray Crawford ever got during his career. Crawford steps forward magnificently here to become Smith’s partner in crime. He’s even adapted his guitar style from the classic sound he so beautifully lent to Gil Evans’ “La Nevada” to come up with something a little more hip for the times. This is especially notable in the album’s best tracks: the awesome blues of “Bro Pugh” (named for Lonzo Pugh of Phoenix, Arizona – listen to the way Smith mans the changes, first, on organ, and then, more spectacularly, on piano) and the break-beat classic “Can’t Get Enough” (first heard on CD on the excellent Luv ‘N’ Haight compilation, Can’t Get Enough issued in 1995). Smith is glorious throughout Paid in Full’s four tracks, proving he was still the boss and that organ jazz still mattered.

The Jimmy Smith ‘75 album is a mixed bag which becomes evident as the funky “Can’t Get Enough” fades into the apparent audience favorite “Organ Grinder’s (sic) Swing,” a brief respite into the deep, dark past of the Hammond’s glory days. It’s a decent enough performance, followed by live takes of Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright With Me” (where Smith sounds more like Jimmy McGriff than himself), Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times” (a feature for Ray Crawford), the noodle-y “Jazz Scattin’” and the seemingly requisite “Got My Mojo Workin,” a Muddy Waters hit that Smith re-popularized in the mid-1960s and became the basis for his label’s name. Here, it is justified by a particularly dazzling (yet brief) solo Smith takes to say this sort of thing still mattered. He makes a pretty damned convincing case.

Even so, things pick up with a particularly electrifying studio piece called “Testifyin’,” which, of course, is the title of this CD. Crawford rocks here in his phase-shifted way and Smith, of course, preaches the gospel like no one ever could. It comes through again on “Lookin’ Ain’t Getting’” and on a surprisingly funky take on Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” (which must have sounded odd to anyone digging this or any other jazz record in 1975). The pop covers actually sound a little out of place here and include the unknown Daryle Chinn’s “More To Life (Than Living)” – which is probably better suited to excellent and worthwhile Black Smith - and the weird cover of the Roberta Flack hit “Feel Like Making Love,” with Crawford’s gorgeous guitarisms nearly being drowned by some of Jimmy Smith’s strange and unnecessary growling protestations (“That’s the TIME…”).

Both albums are included in their entirety for the first time ever on this CD, given the not altogether inappropriate title, Testifyin’ (one of the better songs on the second of the two albums). Issued by the Spanish label, Groove Hut, it’s a great collection, focusing on a very little-known and still interesting period of Jimmy Smith’s music and a fairly necessary chapter of the man’s music.

The sound here is more than adequate, despite the probability that it was copped from well-cleaned vinyl rips. And the cover art and typography leave more than something to be desired. Nowhere to be seen is the original cover art of Paid in Full or the trippy gatefold sleeve of Jimmy Smith ‘75. On the other hand, John Blackman’s liner notes are well written and help set the music in its proper context.

Jimmy Smith would hereafter go on to record three albums for the Mercury label, each of which is worthy in its own right – particularly 1977’s oddly commercial yet addictive Sit On It! - then reunite with Lalo Schifrin in 1980 for the excellent The Cat Strikes Again. I’ll try to get around to covering these on this blog someday. It makes for some great music…still!

But all of this is to say that, despite attention being drawn elsewhere at the time, organ great Jimmy Smith was still making legendary music worth hearing and savoring during the 1970s. Testifyin’ is ample proof.

For more information, check out the Groove Hut site, here.

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