Wednesday, February 23, 2005

A Soul Jazz Thing

The great organist Jimmy Smith left us on February 8th at the age of 79. I was especially saddened to hear of his passing because I had started an appreciation piece on him last December but never completed it as these things are wont to go. He truly was the heart of soul jazz.

The various obituaries were universally respectful and admiring of his talent, noting his considerable influence; but it struck me that many were damning him with faint praise:

He blended jazz, blues, R&B, bebop and even gospel into an exciting stew - an idiom that produced many imitators, followers and fans.

Fair enough, I suppose, but when you say blended, I think of tepid purée not the kind of propulsive music that sprung from Smith's hands. This is a man, in a category of his own, who was dubbed the "Emperor of the Hammond Organ". He featured, like the Kings, Dukes and Counts, among the royalty of the jazz tradition.

Pardon me, if you will, while I set the record straight:
Soul Jazz is ecstatic music.
It's about the blowing sessions that happen after the main show, long past the midnight hour, when the lights are low and the musicians are loose and playing for keeps. At the after-party jam, it's all about earthly delights, loosened ties and unbuttoned collars. You'll hear complex grooves and humourous exchanges in the music: Can you top this? they're asking.

There'll be virtuosity that will make you stand up, thump your feet and rumble with someone close. The laughs are heartier and the flirtations are more intense. It's a celebration of the sensual and the sacred. Musically, it's the funky, greasy blues of back-alley jook joints with the prospect of the Good Lord the next day.

And Jimmy Smith best illustrated this notion: after playing through the night at the grimiest of speakeasies, you would find him on the organ at the church service in the morning, energetically lacing melodies to punctuate the reverend's call. All the while, the crowd from the previous night would be nursing their hangovers in soul claps amongst the congregation.

Consider the one-two punch of Midnight Special, which is about as earthy as these things come, and the revival and church hall vibe of Prayer Meetin'. They are part and parcel of this innovative musical conception. Smith's music speaks loudly and was heavily sampled by hip-hoppers and revered by the acid jazz/rare groove crowd. The aesthetic of A Tribe called Quest sprung fully formed from this soul jazz confection. Exciting is the least of it.

Herewith then, this month's soul jazz playlist bookended by Jimmy Smith's groove.

The Sermon

Jimmy Smith - The Sermon

The title track, a 20 minute affair, is what is says it is: a musical sermon. It's a relaxed affair, founded on an insistent back beat of the kind that Jamerson and co. would later pepper all of Motown with. It's not overbearing; the preacher is in his prime and knows what he's doing. It ebbs and flows as the message is delivered full-throated by the choir. The soloists let their hair down and the music builds up. It's an all-star cast on the church floor. The intent is to make people start yearning for the promised land. Exclamations and outbursts proliferate and everyone has ample opportunity to shine. The solos on the rest of the album are in the same vein, demonstrating to all and sundry that, with the Hammond organ on hand, there was no one quite like Jimmy Smith.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Natural Soul

Lou Donaldson - The Natural Soul

Mixed in with shaking works like Nice 'n' Greasy and Funky Mama are fluid and inventive approaches to old standards by Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lou Donaldson is a wonderful musician full of humour and here everything flows easily as befits a natural soul.

Never Let me Go

Stanley Turrentine - Never Let me Go

Stanley Turrentine's artful saxophone and lazy organ courtesy of Shirley Scott makes for heavenly jazz. For those late nights...

Sonny Clark

Sonny Clark - Cool Struttin'

This is the closest to staightforward hard bop as you'll get from this playlist. But the sounds of this album speak to that transcendant "feel" that is soul. It's not a blowing session but the musicians are in a playful mood. All the ingredients combine and the core of the genre is plainly evident.

Ready for Freddie

Freddie Hubbard - Ready for Freddie

Earlier albums like Hub Tones were about displaying the fireworks and technical mastery of his instrument that put him in the league of the best jazz trumpeters of all time. Ready for Freddie is Hubbard's most cohesive album and shows his virtues as a band leader and composer. Those who think that Miles Davis was the end-all on the trumpet need to consider the likes of Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown or Donald Byrd and, on the evidence of this album, Freddie Hubbard. Trading with Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and rythymn section of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Art Davis, this is a portrait of a band in full. A decade later, firmly established as an all-star, he could go on to the much-beloved Red Clay. But in the music of this moment, the world was ready for him and Freddie was a monster.

Straight No Filter

Hank Mobley - Straight No Filter

Whereas Soul Station is his consensus masterpiece, this posthumous release of the sessions that comprise Straight No Filter is a great introduction to the rarefied sounds of Hank Mobley. For a decade, everyone worth his salt in jazz knew that a gig with Hank was just the right thing. He made no apologies with his compositions and was game for revisiting standards in interesting new ways. "Yes Indeed" could well stand in for a sermon and Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock and Philly Joe Jones turn it up a notch. The aura of these sessions is mellow crepuscule.

Mercy Mercy Mercy

Cannonball Adderley Quintet - Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!

Although sub-titled "Live at 'The Club'", this was actually a studio affair. The album aimed to recapture that loose club feeling with friends showing up for a good time and free booze. And it works. There's Fun, Games, and even a Sack O' Woe as the Adderley brothers (Nat and Cannonball) do their thing. Joe Zawinul's compositions also played an important part in the way in which this group gelled.

Alternatively you can go for the Country Preacher album which was indeed recorded live at a revival for Operation Breadbasket and which features a young Jesse Jackson exhorting the appreciative audience onwards and upwards. But trust me, you can't go wrong with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!

Idle Moments

Grant Green - Idle Moments

Is this the greatest jazz guitar album ever? Well it's a close-run thing. Maybe Smokin' at the Half Note gets the edge, but I wouldn't be so presumptious. Idle Moments captures Grant Green and company making magic. Bobby Hutcherson is on the vibes, Joe Henderson growls on the tenor sax and Duke Pearson is all empathy on the piano. They didn't plan for the title cut to be that long but sessions like these are supposed to be unhurried affairs. Simply inspirational music that we have the great fortune to be able to listen to time and again. This is about as good as it gets.

The Worm

Jimmy McGriff - The Worm

An organist who followed in Jimmy Smith's path, McGriff found his own style and took the instrument in a different direction. It's more percussive and danceable, he's aiming towards the funky edge of the continuum. The liner notes defy you to sit down through this album. I can testify to their veracity.

Back at the Chicken Shack

Jimmy Smith - Back at the Chicken Shack

And finally we're back where it begins, at the blues shack. This album is one of my favourites from Blue Note and Jimmy Smith's finest moment. Cratediggers like DJ Shadow are forever enthused by the album cover but for me it's the music inside that matters and, when it comes to that, the guns are drawn from the first note: insistent, intelligent and nasty fun ensues.

I can see Jimmy hunched over the organ. Kenny Burrell on guitar, and Stanley Turrentine on saxophone are egging him on and trading funky licks and hard-bop runs. He's sweating profusely yet he's still cool enough to wink to that sister in the corner table to seal the deal. Smiles and loaded looks are exchanged.
Later on baby. There'll be time enough afterwards. For now, just lay back and listen to this. I'm in the cut.
I miss you Jimmy. Wherever you are, stay locked into the groove.

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