The Champ: The Incredible Jimmy Smith at Verve

25 Aug

To paraphrase Michael Corleone in Godfather II, if history has taught us anything, it’s not to trust jazz critics.  Too often they cling to an academic view of what they think the music is, or should be, and don’t understand the need of musicians to adapt to changing commercial environments, or cultural tastes, or just the plain need to change.  And their opinion often eventually changes to catch up with what popular opinion and musicians have known all along  – that great music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and needs to adapt and speak of the times in which it was made…

Which brings us to Jimmy Smith.  Conventional wisdom has it that the records he made during a relatively short (though highly prolific) period on Blue Note are the only things by him worth bothering with, and that his subsequent move to Verve Records was born of strictly commercial considerations, with the output consisting of big band arrangements of pop tunes and film themes from long-forgotten films and TV shows.

Of course this ignores the evidence of listening to these records:  they’re fun, funky and very jazzy.  And if you like Jimmy Smith you’re going to like these – he’s so distinctive, and original, that it doesn’t really matter what he’s playing.  And actually most of this stuff still sounds pretty good: the arrangements are tasteful, the tunes are short and (generally) funky, and the bands (normally featuring dons like Grady Tate, Kenny Burrell, and Eric Gale) and performances are great.  So get ahead of the critics and enjoy these albums (that are still easy to pick up as CD reissues, often a twofers) for what they are: popular jazz that crossed the bridge between commerciality and artistic value, and still has relevance today – just play his version of ‘Mission Impossible’, for instance, to see how he still rocks the dancefloor…

The last word to (the admittedly never knowingly undersold) Mr Smith: ‘James Brown don’t play organ.  He used to play at it, until he heard Jimmy Smith.  Then he got a shotgun and shot the fuckin’ organ!’.

These are five I’d start with (all easily available on Amazon and the like):

1) The Cat

From 1964, and arranged by Lalo Schifrin, features the brilliant title track, plus loads of other swinging bluesy tracks.  As the sleeve notes say, ‘Jimmy Smith and The Cat are all soul…Driving solos that roar and purr…and are equally at home in an alley or penthouse’.  Well I think I know what they mean:

2) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In which Jimmy displays a highly literal streak, and an admirable lack of interest in his source materials, by posing on the cover with a woman in a bath robe wearing a wolf mask (!). It includes swingers like ‘Slaughter On 10th Avenue’, and the  title track, part one of which is here:

3) Bashin’/ Hobo Flats

First two albums on Verve, from 1962/3, and a nice bridge from his Blue Note stuff at the time – check this version of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’:

4) Respect/Livin’ It Up

Getting funky now, with ‘Respect’ featuring a small group covering popular soul and jazz tunes from the time, while ‘Livin” is back to the orchestrated sound, but still with that driving beat.  One from each below:


Mission Impossible (with great visuals from the show – how nostalgic does this make you feel?):

5) Got My Mojo Workin’/Hoochie Coochie Man

In which Jimmy audibly grunts, and sometimes sings, his way through a collection of soul and rock hits from the time, plus some classic bluesy jazz .  Below is the well-known (and most vocally mainstream!) title track from the first album, but they’re both good, song-based albums (he does a great version of the Stone’s ‘Satisfaction’ that bears almost no relation to the original, other than him moaning licentiously at the end that ‘I can’t get no satisfaction from you babe’  – making the the Stones sound like the warm-up for his adults only version)

Check these out and you’ll understand while Miles Davis referred to him as the 8th Wonder of the World.


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