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Stuff Smith: The Complete Verve Stuff Smith Sessions

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Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, Sven Asmussen, and Eddie South were all great violinists, but their styles were, to varying degrees, tied to legitimate technique. Stuff Smith was the first to develop a purely jazz conception for the instrument. Influenced by Armstrong and others, Smith developed an approach that featured a foreshortened bow-stroke that he felt helped him phrase like a horn. He also modified the classical vibrato along the lines of Louis. But mere technical considerations don’t explain the most apparent aspect of his music; he swung harder than not only any other fiddler, but as hard as pretty much anyone you can think of. He achieved prominence when he formed the Onyx Club Boys in 1936. This sextet, which teamed Smith with (Jonah) Jones, was as much jive as jazz, but no one ever said that Fats Waller wasn’t great, and the best late-’30’s Smith is just as irresistible.

Like many of his generation, Smith had been largely forgotten by the Fifties, but this set should help clarify his position as not just a great swinger but a musical free spirit whose style transcended the swing-to-bop barrier and flirted at times with the avant garde. He certainly didn’t mind breaking rules when it came to harmony, his penchant for parallel fifth double-stops being the most obvious example.

He often gets himself into corners that seem inescapable, only to work his way back out by staying his course.

The best of Smith’s Verve work, if not his best ever, occurs on the sessions that pair him and Dizzy Gillespie. Both were adventurous, extroverted swingers, and they obviously relished playing together. The rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul West, and J. C. Heard is a perfect blend of swing and modern styles, with Kelly in particularly good form, a big boost to any session. Another great modern blues piano man, Carl Perkins, is catalyst on the quartet sessions originally issued as Have Violin, Will Swing, and his presence is also a huge plus. For someone whose approach was so well-defined, Perkins certainly fit well with varied performers. You would think he and Smith had worked together for years.

Two sessions featured a drumless trio, with Dudley Brooks or Jimmy Jones at piano, and somehow this excellent work has remained unissued until now. The elegant Jones had in fact worked extensively with Smith and understood his harmonic thinking well. The sessions used for the album Stuff Smith find our protagonist at the helm of a typical Verve group with Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and Alvin Stoller. Cat on a Hot Fiddle started out as a Gershwin project with a young Shirley Horn on vocals and piano, but evidently the concept was changed and a second quartet session with non-Gershwin material was held. Five unused tracks from these sessions, as well as four very interesting tracks from an unfinished collaboration with Ray Nance, are issued here for the first time. Smith, like most soloists, is heard to best advantage when he is in harness with other lead horses. Even Kessel in unremarkable form sounds good as a foil. We could wish for other blowers of Dizzy’s class, but apart from the unmemorable vocal or two, this is all top-flight mainstream jazz.

Production is up to Mosaic’s lofty standards, with excellent notes by Smith’s biographer, Anthony Barnett. One point that Barnett makes repeatedly is that Stuff Smith was a composer of very considerable abilities. Hopefully this set, which contains a high percentage of originals, will inspire new versions of these tunes as well a new appreciation of a unique jazz voice.