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January/February 2005

Jimmy Smith
Retrospective
Blue Note Records

A complete anomaly when he hit the scene in 1956, Jimmy Smith created an unprecedented post-Bird blowing vocabulary on the Hammond B3 organ that was light years beyond what pioneers like Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Milt Buckner had previously done on the instrument. Back in 1956, Smith came out of the gate on his Blue Note debut, A New Sound, A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, and blew everybody away. The impression that he made on the jazz scene in subsequent years was staggering. Through the sheer force of his own personality on the bandstand and his pyrotechnic command of the keys and foot pedals, Smith single-handedly brought the 400-plus pound instrument to the forefront of jazz.

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Francis Wolff

Jimmy Smith

Blue Note's four-CD Retrospective documents the organ genius at the very peak of his awesome powers, from 1956 through 1963. The final track of the boxed set, "Fungii Mama," fast forwards to a session from 1986, when Smith recorded Go for Whatcha Know with Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Burrell and Grady Tate for the reactivated Blue Note label. By then, Smith's powers had diminished somewhat, but he's on fire throughout the rest of the box set, particularly in his exhilarating exchanges with Art Blakey, Kenny Burrell and Lou Donaldson on sessions from 1957's Jimmy Smith at the Organ. Smith's 10-minute face-off with Blakey on "The Duel" reaches some outre peaks, while the great organist's duet with Donaldson on "Summertime" is a marvel of melodic improvisation.

Smith's sanctified blues phrasing and single-note burn is prominent throughout "Willow Weep for Me," where he also highlights some adventurous tonal colors in his unique drawbar choices. Another standout track is a bristling rendition of "Get Happy," recorded live at the Baby Grand in Wilmington, Del., with Smith's longtime sideman Donald Bailey on drums and Thornel Schwartz on guitar. The distorted, overdriven tone of Schwartz's guitar here-reminiscent of George Freeman's edgy guitar work on the 1950 Savoy release An Evening at Home With the Bird-gives this raucous live outing a decidedly punk appeal. Elsewhere on this set are classic renditions of Horace Silver's "The Preacher," Dizzy Gillespie's "The Champ" and the organist's own hits like "The Sermon," "Back at the Chicken Shack" and "Midnight Special." Smith went on to enjoy more commercial success at Verve through the '60s, but for pure, unabashed burn, these early Blue Note sessions can't be beat.

Originally published in January/February 2005
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