When Jimmy Smith was growing up near Philadelphia in the 1930s, he taught himself to play boogie-woogie piano well enough to win a radio-sponsored contest. He discovered the joys of the Hammond organ when he was in his early 20s, and soon became the go-to guy for area jazz bands who loved his sound. His hero was Wild Bill Davis, about ten years his senior, who practically invented the genre of jazz electric organ when he played with Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five.
With money from a loan shark, Smith bought a Hammond and installed it in an empty warehouse so he could practice. The risk paid off in 1956, when Blue Note Records co-founder Alfred Lion heard him play in Philadelphia and immediately signed him. In the eight years he was with Blue Note, Smith made about 40 records. The label always billed him as “The Incredible Jimmy Smith,” and they weren’t wrong. He signed with Verve in 1962. His solo albums alone number nearly 100, and that doesn’t include the many sessions he worked as a sideman.
Smith died in 2005. His innovations in jazz organ technique and style, not to mention the way he stretched the instrument beyond jazz into R&B, remain influential. Enjoy these eight great tracks by Jimmy Smith.
- Track: “The Champ”
Album: A New Sound, A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, Vol. 2
Label: Blue Note
This album was recorded at the beginning of Smith’s time with Blue Note, the second installment of a two-volume set that came out in 1956. Smith is joined by Thornel Schwartz on guitar and Donald Bailey on drums.
In some markets, the album was called The Champ after the opening track. “The Champ” is a be-bop tune by trumpet master Dizzy Gillespie. It is immediately apparent that Smith is doing something new and completely original with the Hammond. While the standard was (and continued to be in rock music later) to use the organ for its sustaining capabilities, Smith is treating it like a jazz piano with an array of nifty tone colors.
- Track: “What’s New?”
Album: Crazy! Baby
Label: Blue Note
This is the first of many albums that Smith recorded at the New Jersey studio of Rudy Van Gelder, who also engineered the recording. Blue Note Records’ Alfred Lion produced. Donald Bailey returns on drums, and this time guitar is provided by Quentin Warren, who recorded with Smith throughout the 1960s.
Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke wrote “What’s New?” in 1939, and Bing Crosby had a hit with it. By 1960 it had been recorded by many jazz vocalists and instrumentalists. Although not as sentimental as, say, Sinatra’s version, Smith starts off very cool, taking advantage of the Hammond’s famous warbling sustain. But he still manages to craft a number of experimental effects, at first as segues between phrases and then integrated into the main melody.
- Track: “Honeysuckle Rose”
Album: Jimmy Smith Plays Fats Waller
Label: Blue Note
Smith was the ideal vessel for the creations of Fats Waller, as one keyboard genius to another. Like the piano star Waller, Smith could express humor through his virtuosity. Backed by Warren and Bailey, the organist uses his instrument to intensify the best elements of Waller’s music
Waller co-wrote the charming “Honeysuckle Rose” with lyricist Andy Razaf, who also provided the words for his most famous song “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Smith gives the whimsical tune a touch of gravity, thanks to a particularly weighty bass line. Meanwhile, that treble voice is floating and spinning like Cupid with his bow.
- Track: “Greensleeves”
Album: Organ Grinder Swing
After a few albums with larger ensembles, Smith is back in trio mode with guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Grady Tate. There’s a particularly nice mix of tunes on this record, including Ellington/Strayhorn’s “Satin Doll” and the title track by big-band leader Will Hudson. But the most interesting choice is “Greensleeves.”
It’s surprising to discover this English Renaissance tune (a melody better known in America as the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?”) among the offerings. Originally a courtly dance in 6/8 time, the meter is tricked by Smith into widening its rhythmic pathways, making room for be-bop explorations. He approaches it as a jazz waltz, so you get a strong sense of syncopated triple time (whereas in 6/8, the more prominent feel is duple).
- Track: “James and Wes”
Album: Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo
Jazz guitar master Wes Montgomery was a few years older than Smith and a fellow artist at Verve. When they entered the studio together, they found their styles so compatible that they churned out material for two albums. They’re joined by about a dozen session musicians. Over half of Side A is devoted to a jam on the traditional American song “Down by the Riverside.”
Side B opens with a Smith original, “James and Wes,” written for the occasion. It suits the album’s cover photo of the two great friends sharing a sandwich – innocent and sweet at first glance, but crunchy and spicy once you bite down.
- Track: “Let’s Stay Together”
Album: Root Down! Jimmy Smith Live
Around 1970, Smith relocated to Los Angeles, where he opened Jimmy Smith’s Supper Club to give himself and his friends a regular gig. Root Down! was recorded there. The album got a second life and a whole different kind of exposure when the Beastie Boys sampled from it on their EP Root Down in 1995.
Smith hooks into a soul vibe for his version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” The emotional lines on the organ are enhanced by Buck Clarke’s delicate textures on percussion and the intermingling of Arthur Adams’ guitar.
- Track: “Can’t Hide Love”
Album: Sit on It!
The arrangements and vibe on this album are as quintessentially 1970s as its title. Film score fans will be interested to note that Alan Silvestri (who scored the Avengers movies for Marvel plus countless others) is both the arranger and session guitarist!
Afreeka Trees contributes vocals to the Skip Scarborough song “Can’t Hide Love,” made famous by Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s a good example of Smith as a generous ensemble player, providing atmosphere when he’s not creating solos that blend seamlessly into the tapestry of sound.
- Track: “Serpentine Fire”
Album: Unfinished Business
A big cohort of musicians was called in for this album, among them Ronnie Foster, who both played the electric piano and arranged and conducted the horn section.
For the album’s last track, “Serpentine Fire,” it’s all hands on deck. The funk arrangement gets crucial assistance from bassist Abraham Laboriel. Smith plays staccato during his repeating patterns in the melody, so he’s constantly ready to launch into lightning-speed improv.
Header image from the back cover of the album Jimmy Smith, Any Number Can Win, Verve V6-8552.