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Craig Handy: Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith

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Craig Handy is one of the strongest saxophone sidemen in jazz. He waited until he had a good reason to make his first record as a leader in 14 years. The idea is this: Get an organ combo together; revisit 10 numbers from the Jimmy Smith songbook; invite heavyweight guests, most from New Orleans. (Smith likes New Orleans second-line rhythms.)

The ingredients ignite. Handy’s band (Kyle Koehler, B-3; Matt Chertkoff, guitar; Clark Gayton, sousaphone) kicks ass, and the guests catch the vibe. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” is a jubilant scatting celebration by Dee Dee Bridgewater. Smith’s 1965 version of “Got My Mojo Workin'” had a riffing, kicking horn section, his own vocal, and a monster organ workout. Handy’s ambitious redo has a better blues singer, Clarence Spady. For horns, it has no less than Wynton Marsalis, deep in Big Easy character, squalling and rasping, and Handy himself, wildly trilling, rocking the house.

In the rotating drum chair, Jason Marsalis, Herlin Riley and Ali Jackson, all from New Orleans, bring double-clutch second-line syncopations. Riley shuffles hard, sometimes with a washboard. Jason Marsalis makes “Organ Grinder’s Swing” snap to his march step.

But Handy is the soul and passion of 2nd Line Smith. He has spent his career within the Coltrane tradition. He now says, “The older I get, the more I relate to Stanley Turrentine.” Smith’s original versions of “Minor Chant” and Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” featured Turrentine’s earthy blues tenor. Handy’s interpretations are shamelessly soul-baring like Turrentine’s but edgier, updated for the new millennium. On every solo, Handy is entrenched in the groove and therefore free to wail, having the time of his life.

A second volume is called for. Many more Smith tunes need revisiting, like “The Sermon” and “Back at the Chicken Shack.”

Originally Published