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Johnny Hammond: Gears (Jazz Dispensary)

Review of a vinyl reissue of the organist's 1975 album, produced by Larry and Fonce Mizell

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Cover of Johnny Hammond album Gears
Cover of Johnny Hammond album Gears

Before the onslaught of 1970s disco-jazz and the flywheel Latin-laced jazz dance music of the Salsoul Orchestra and Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, the production team of Larry and Fonce Mizell were adding string arrayments and four-on-the-floor rhythms to its charges for maximum dancefloor exposure. One such client was Kentucky-born Johnny “Hammond” Smith, the Hammond B-3 jazz organist who had been adding swampy Southern soul to his post-postbop diet since his earliest Prestige label sides, 1959’s That Good Feelin’ and 1960’s Talk That Talk.

Unafraid of lushly stringed things and sprightly melodic funk, the Mizell Brothers and Smith teamed first on 1974’s grooving Gambler’s Life and then—on sessions featuring bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Harvey Mason, keyboardist Jerry Peters, a cadre of background vocalists and an orchestra of brass, reeds, violins and synth players—for the sensual, shifting Gears.

The Donald Byrd-like simmering, looped soul-jazz of “Tell Me What to Do” leads into the disco thunder of the nearly seven-minute-long “Los Conquistadores Chocolates” in what appears to be the Mizell brothers’ (both songs’ composers) vision of a night’s seduction. Cosmopolitan and quirky, the mix of flutes, vibraphone, and wah-wah heavy guitar, together with Hammond’s dirty chord changes and un-ornate organ solo, makes this epic spin like a top. The same can be said of the ebullient Smith/Mizell co-write “Fantasy,” the ethereal downtempo romancer “Lost on 23rd Street,” and the cheerfully funky “Can’t We Smile?”—each of which portrays jazz as a joyful communal exercise, a party. With that vibe, it’s no surprise that Smith and Gears are a favorite of the crate-digging set and hip-hop samplers everywhere.

Learn more about Gears on Amazon