Jimmy Smith is gone, but the groove lives on
The groove is alive and well, as scores of jazz-jam and soul-funk groups can attest.But the main architect of the groove is gone. Keyboardist Jimmy Smith, whose organ trio recordings of the late ’50s and early ’60s on the Blue Note label more or less invented the soul-jazz genre, died last week at the age of 76. Smith took the Hammond B-3 organ, considered a musical novelty, and made it jazz’s most seriously swinging instrument. Smith was prolific, with upwards of 65 albums to his credit, and productive right to the end. His “Dot Com Blues,” a 2001 album featuring B.B. King, Keb’ Mo’, Etta James and Dr. John, plus a horn section, was a career highlight.Smith left not only a major legacy, witnessed in acts from Medeski, Martin & Wood to the Greyboy Allstars to Maceo Parker, and even artists like Grant Green, who played guitar rather than keyboard. He also left one last album. Fittingly, Smith’s final chords are in collaboration with Joey DeFrancesco, a leading soul-jazz organist who followed closely in Smith’s footsteps (and who is, like Smith, a Philadelphia-area product).Following are reviews of the final Smith recording, and of CDs that similarly combine jazz with a groove.Joey DeFrancesco with Jimmy Smith, “Legacy”produced by DeFrancesco (Concord)Its release coinciding with Smith’s death, “Legacy” is bound to get ample attention. So it’s a good thing that the pioneering organist leaves on a high note. Make that a blazing flurry of notes. Smith is no minor guest on the album; he plays on each track, and he and DeFrancesco cover four of Smith’s tunes.
What impresses most on this mostly instrumental disc … well, what doesn’t impress? The exuberant trading of organ lines on the Smith classic “Back at the Chicken Shack,” with a slight Latin flavor, is blistering, as the old and young pro try to outduel each other. “Jones’n for Elvin,” a tribute to another late jazz great, drummer Elvin Jones, moves away from groove in the direction of rhythmic bebop.While Smith stays put at the Hammond B-3 organ, DeFrancesco wanders from organ to piano to electronic keyboard, giving “Legacy” a variety of feels. On the opening title track, this makes for a beautiful interaction of sounds: organ and piano, electric sitar and gongs, flowing down a twisting soul highway. On Smith’s “Off the Top,” DeFrancesco’s piano and Smith’s organ make wonderful partners, proving that “Legacy” isn’t just about old soul, but expanding the style as well. As a capper, Smith sings over a strutting, funky take on the blues classic “Got My Mojo Working.”Quite an exit for Mr. Smith.Kyle Hollingsworth, “Never Odd or Even”produced by Hollingsworth (SCI Fidelity)The distance from Smith’s original groove to Kyle Hollingsworth’s jam-jazz sensibility can seem long. But there are moments on “Never Odd or Even,” the solo debut by String Cheese Incident’s keyboardist and singer, where that line seems unwavering. On “Seventh Step,” for instance, the sound is stripped down, making plenty of room for Hollingsworth’s old-soul organ-grinding, a direct descendant of Smith’s style. “The Bridge,” with Hollingsworth on piano and pedal steel sensation Robert Randolph sitting in, has strong echoes of Smith’s bluesier side.Hollingsworth also adds some touches that probably never occurred to Smith. “The Preacher,” with Latin rhythms by the Motet’s Dave Watts that recalls classic Santana, is built around a televised sermon that Hollingsworth captured on a mini disc recorder. “Gigawatt” has a dense industrial sound; Hollingsworth shows a keen imagination by flowing the song into “The Arc,” which has a similar guitar theme but a lighter, more techno feel.”Never Odd or Even” – which boasts contributions from saxophonist Joshua Redman, Colorado guitarist Ross Martin, and Hollingsworth’s String Cheese mate, mandolinist Michael Kang – would remind one more instantly of Medeski, Martin & Wood. But the connection back to Smith is evident.
Jeff Coffin Mu’tet, “Bloom”produced by Coffin (Compass Records)”Bloom,” the latest from Flecktones saxophonist Jeff Coffin, opens by mining a groove that predates even Jimmy Smith: “Move Your Rug” and “Better Do Your Thing” are straight out of a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. But the Big Easy beat gives way to something smoother on “The Evil Boweevil,” with organist Tyler Wood providing a connection back to ’50s soul-jazz and DJ Logic putting a more modern spin on things. “Bloom” never heads back to New Orleans, but explores a bunch of different vibes – slow and minimalist on “My Dog Chunks,” bouncy and fun on “The Mad Hatter Rides Again,” mournful on the ballad “Circle of Wills,” inspired by guitarist Bill Frisell – that Smith might not recognize but would certainly approve. Coffin’s saxophone, often played through electronic effects, has a consistent punch. And he uses his diverse supporting cast – including mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Pat Bergeson and fellow Flecktones, banjoist Béla Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten and synthax drumitarist Futureman – to great effect.Bill Frisell, “Unspeakable”produced by Hal Willner (Nonesuch)Guitarist Bill Frisell was an unlikely candidate to get into the groove. Over the past decade, Frisell developed a style that crossed jazz with strains of country, and his distinctive sound, which left plenty of space between his notes, seemed unsuited for jazz’s groovier side.
“Unspeakable,” which just earned the Grammy Award for best contemporary jazz album, is a major departure. Instead of regular producer Lee Townsend, Frisell has Hall Willner, who not only produces but plays turntables and samples on a bunch of tracks. Also aboard are the 858 Strings, a trio with an edge, and the drumming team of Kenny Wolleson and Don Alias, who give “Unspeakable” a funky beat. Frisell’s ringing, spacious sound is intact, but the backing could hardly be more different.So what does a postmodern guitarist have to do with old-school organ music? Plenty. Frisell’s wonderful blues chords on “White Fang” reach back, even as the techno-funk beat pushed into the future. The laid-back “Del Close” leans even closer to Smith’s idea of groove. There’s not a lick of organ on “Unspeakable,” yet the connection to the Smith’s organ trio recordings is evident.As he did with 1997’s “Nashville,” his first recording to fully explore the country-jazz fusion, Frisell has staked out a whole new universe with “Unspeakable.” What he does with it remains to be seen, but the possibilities are wide-open.Critters Buggin, “Stampede”produced by Matt Chamberlain (Ropeadope)Critters Buggin, a quartet of drummer Matt Chamberlain, saxophonist-keyboardist Skerik, drummer Mike Dillon and bassist Brad Houser, plays an ultra-modern, minimalist funk-jazz, informed by free jazz and techno. Draw a line from Jimmy Smith to Herbie Hancock’s VSOP days to Medeski, Martin & Wood, and the next touchstone is “Stampede.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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