JIMMY SMITH Bashin’: The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith (Speakers Corner)
This first side of this 1962 album is driven by quirky but brilliant arrangements by Oliver Nelson, whose big band accompanies organist Smith. This is bright, spacious music making, commercial but not condescending, relentless but not exhausting. Opening with massed sleighbells, of all things, “Walk On The Wild Side” ratchets up the tension, seemingly delaying Jimmy’s entrance until the last possible moment; he doesn’t carry the tune, just solos at its centre, regressing into a kind of frantic Morse code hammering. The cover almot underplays it by referring to “the exciting jazz version of WALK ON THE WILD SIDE”; it’s got va va voom and then some. Smith arrives with the melody to “Ol’ Man River”, brass stabs scattering to his left and right; at times he squeezes a kind of white noise screech from his instrument that might more usually be expected of, say, a Velvet Underground album. Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone” was last heard round these parts in Ben Webster’s capable hands, and hot damn, does it ever swing here.
The second side of trio settings has a kind of unsettled calm to it, especially the likes of “Beggar For The Blues” and “Bashin’”, which, for the lack of really compelling tunes and showstopping dynamics, rather languishes in Nelson’s shadow. Amends are made, though, by a delicious lollop through “I’m An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande)”, closing a mostly great album that positively overflows with music.
Speakers Corner’s reissue is typically splendidly packaged and pressed, and sounds absolutely wondrous. Maybe it could be bettered by a 45 rpm pressing with even more audiophile cred, but not by much I would imagine. A big, brassy blare of a record, it creates a soundstage that you can fall into.
JIMMY SMITH Back At The Chicken Shack (Analogue Productions)
After revelling in the (partially, at least) overblown, orchestrated brilliance of “Bashin’”, I was looking forward to hearing more Jimmy Smith albums. Recorded in 1960 but unissued until 1963, this session is typical of the Blue Note label’s laid-back, unpretentious style, as a quartet that includes Kenny Burrell and Stanley Turrentine cycles through the bluesy motions. Utterly professional yet hardly lacking in soul and feeling, the album nevertheless fails to linger longer in my head than its playing time permits. Yes, it’s impressive to hear Smith hold down lead and bass lines simultaneously, and the group are certainly spritely on Turrentine’s own “Minor Chant” (during which he drops a few notes from the “Funeral March” into his solo). Unfortunately, though, for me although all the ingredients of a great album are present, somebody forgot to bake the cake.
It goes without saying that, as part of Analogue Productions’ 45rpm reissue series, this is a fabulous –sounding record. It offers an incredibly present, tactile portrayal of the quartet that’s about as vivid as recorded music can hope to get in a domestic environment; it’s a shame that it’s not one I anticipate returning to much in the future.
JIMMY SMITH Midnight Special (Analogue Productions)
Recorded at the same April 1960 session as the “Back At The Chicken Shack” album, sadly for me “Midnight Special” is just as interchangeably unmemorable. It’s the sound of a talented quartet (which also included Stanley Turrentine and Kenny Burrell) relaxing into an all too well-worn groove.
The title track’s interminable blues is tasteful and polished, yes, but exciting and interesting? Not so yes. Turrentine’s “A Subtle One” betrays more invention than its title might suggest, a somewhat spark(l)ier piece that gives the impression of being consciously composed rather than just jammed into being. The standard “Why Was I Born?” gives the group something to chew on, at least and at last, but a version of Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” is perky to the point of ridiculousness, Smith’s organ tone sounding more like something you’d expect to hear in Blackpool than Englewood Cliffs. Being the 18th album Smith had recorded for Blue Note in less than five years, perhaps he can be forgiven to a degree given such productivity, but “Midnight Special”’s cover boast as being recorded by “The Incredible Jimmy Smith” is, in this instance, barely credible, this seeming almost like a cardboard cutout caricature of a Blue Note album.
Being one of Analogue Production’s 45rpm Blue Note reissues, at least the sonics of this pressing of “Midnight Special” thrill even when the music doesn’t. If the old cliché of it putting the musicians in the listening room were true I’d probably get thrown out of my lounge for heckling though.