Saturday, 13 March 2010

Jimmy Smith…Organ too big to fit

IN European music history, the organ is looked upon as the king of all instruments; and its place is the church.
To deploy the organ as a jazz instrument was seen as a mark of desecration in those days, but it took the likes of Jimmy Smith to remove the instrument from its sacred habitat and make it an accepted vehicle for the execution of jazz and rhythm and blues.
And that is why, since his death, tributes have continued to pour in for Jimmy Smith from critics and reviewers of jazz and rhythm and blues, hailing him as the king of the instrument.
This acknowledgement is further strengthened by the new trend where the distinctiveness of the organ has completely disappeared from jazz; having been shrouded in the configuration of the advanced technological device called the ‘keyboard’.
Five years have passed, and the jazz scene is still waiting for “a new organ king to step into his shoes”.
But this has proved a difficult task. While some other person can easily succeed a departed king in ordinary life, through appointment or selection, a successor to Smith would need to work hard to qualify for the position.
Smith’s shoes are awfully big to step into. He took the organ from church and situated it in the club. Smith was such a dynamic force that his death on February 8, 2005 of undisclosed natural causes at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, United States of America, was a great shock.

SMITH started recording for Blue Note and other record labels nearly 50 years ago, and during this period, he completely transformed the jazz organ.
Through his mastery of the Hammond B-3, which was regarded with awe in those days, Smith has reduced the organ as a vehicle for jazz improvisation to ordinariness.
Perhaps, the most emotionally expressive tributes have come from jazz organists.
He paved the way for such semi-giants of the instrument today as Chris Foreman, Brother Jack McDuff, Ronnie Foster, Jimmy McGrift and Dr. Lonnie Smith whom I met for the first time at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town, South Africa recently.
They all have beautiful things to say about the different ways in which Smith influenced them.

Ironically, the people who are likely to pay genuine tributes to Smith in recognition of his organ virtuoso in Nigeria are mostly devotees and enthusiasts.
The late Sid Moss would sing Smith’s praises because he doubled on the piano and organ and adopted some jazz licks from Smith.
But the real Smith adherents were Austin Emodi, an insurance manager, who, in the 60s, provided us the avenue to hang out and dig the groove because he had all the Blue Note records; Taiwo Okupe, the mechanical engineer who also played the alto saxophone in the Charlie Parker mould and style, even though Billie’s Bounce and Now’s the time were the only tunes he always exploited; Kunle Maja who was responsible for organising the latest albums for our appreciation and listening; and of course, Bola Marquis from whom I first saw The Sermon, one of Jimmy Smiths greatest recordings for Blue Note — even though I had heard it on Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour on Voice of America.
Incidentally, like Jimmy Smith, all these admirers including Fela Anikulapo Kuti who enjoyed Jimmy Smith’s organ as a result of the background it created for Lee Morgan’s trumpet (Fela was playing trumpet at the time) have all gone to meet their ancestors.
As a matter of fact, most of our listening hours were dominated by The Sermon, which Smith recorded with all the jazz stars of that period, including Lee Morgan on trumpet; Lou Donaldson alto saxophone; Tina Brooks and George Coleman, tenor; Keny Burrell and Eddy McFadden, guitars; Art Blakey and Donald Bailey, drums.

SMITH was an advocate of ‘ funk’ the way pianist Horace Silver was.
This element characterised his organ playing but he perhaps exhibited it more copiously and forcefully on The Sermon than any other groove.
He carried the theme of this twelve-bar- blues song and sustained the mood by taking the first solo.
There were numerous other Blue Note records comprising The Incredible Jimmy Smith, House Party, Plays Pretty, At the Organ, Midnight Special, Back at the Chicken shack and others.
He established trio format always consisted of himself, a guitarist and a drummer with horn players making guest appearances. Stanley Turrentine played prominent roles in his recordings for Blue Note Records as a soloist on tenor saxophone, while he worked with such great guitarists as Wes Montgomery, and Kenny Burrell who in fact gave him the backing he was looking for.
But he also worked successfully with other guitar players like Eddie McFadden and Thornel Schwartz while at the same time enlisting the services of drummer Donald Bailey on regular basis.
Smith perhaps made a more significant impact with Verve Records where he met Oliver Nelson as a key collaborator.
The arranger put the organist in front of a big band, as a contrast to his usual combo format on such albums as Hoochie Coochie Man and enhanced his singing on the blues hit Got My Mojo Workin which became popular in Nigeria in the seventies.
Smith’s combination of standards with rhythm and blues, as well as gospel, helped create what became known as soul jazz; and he influenced virtually every organist who followed him. Few dared challenge his stature.
He modeled his melodic style after saxophonist Charlie Parker, a feat that was considered difficult for the keyboard instrument.
But he mastered the organ’s percussive switches and created the ideal shimmer on ballads, his resolute bass lines on one hand contrasting with rapid fire solos on the other.

AFEAT that characterised Smith’s playing, and an innovation that demanded extra energy was his ability to derive bass lines from the left-hand side of the organ by himself.
This ability informed the non-inclusion of a bass player in all his aggregations - either in the studio or live setting.
But a few months before he passed on, Lonnie Smith, one of the celebrated organist’s greatest disciples saw him perform at New York’s Iridium; and noticed that his friend was not looking well.
He was also surprised that he had a bass player supporting him on stage. Obviously, his energy was failing.

SMITH started out learning stride piano and dance under the tutelage of his father outside of Philadelphia.
After a stint in the United States Navy and formally studying harmony and theory, he began working in clubs when he heard organist Wild Bill Davis in the early 1950s.
Davis inspired Smith to commit himself to the instrument.
And because Smith had great talent, he immediately caught the attention of Blue Note’s Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff when he played in New York, at Smals Paradise, for the first time in 1956.
One month after, they brought him into the studio for the recordings that were released and appropriately titled, A new sound... A new star, Jimmy Smith at the organ. The seven years that Smith spent with Blue Note Records produced many classics.
Smith has his kind in every jazz instrument. At the organ, he would be comparable to Charlie Parker on the alto saxophone; John Coltrane on tenor; Wes Montgomery on guitar; Elvin Jones and Art Blakey on drums; Ray Brown, bass; Oscar Peterson, piano; Miles Davis trumpet; Jay Jay Johnson, trombone.
These men were the kings of their various instruments.
Smith was the king of the organ. And in the words of foremost disciple, Chris Foreman, “those are awfully big shoes to fill.”

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