JOHNNY “HAMMOND” SMITH: BLACK COFFEE
Johnny “Hammond” Smith Trio:
Johnny “Hammond” Smith (org) Eddie McFadden (g) Leo Stevens (drs) plus Selden Powell (ts)*
Recorded “live” at the Monterey Club; New Haven, Conn.; November 8, 1962
Black Coffee (4:19) (Burke-Webster)
Monterey Theme (3:03) (Johnny Smith)
I Remember Clifford (4:15) (Benny Golson)
Far Away Places (7:14) (Kramer-Whiney)
Rufus Toofus (7:11) (Johnny Smith)
Body and Soul (6:20) (Green-Heyman-Sour-Eyton)
He’s a Real Gone Guy (5:38) (Nellie Lutcher)
As you listen to this album by Johnny “Hammond” Smith, you will very probably be struck, as I was, by its remarkably relaxed, really pleasant overall mood. It’s noticeable even when the tempo goes way up, and it’s especially apparent when the group gets into an easy-cooking blues groove, as they do right at the start on Black Coffee (which was a Peggy Lee hit a few years back). At any tempo, you can have no doubt that everyone was feeling at ease, comfortable and happy about the whole thing.
I hardly have to tell you that this is not true of all recordings. Many of the performances you hear the final results of painful hours of takes and retakes, sweat and tears. And a good many of them sound that way. Recording in a club can be more relaxing, but it offers a good deal less control of the situation than a studio date; and the knowledge that each note is being set down for posterity is enough to freeze some musicians.
But Johnny’s group has been doing much of its playing at an easy-going club in New Haven that’s like home to them. (For that matter, the organist’s actual home these days is no more than a couple of blacks away from the club.) It was A & R man Orrin Keepnews’ suggestion that Smith’s first album for Riverside be an on-the-job date, and it was the leader’s feeling that this was the only place to do it. The audience at the Monterey knows the group well, accepts them, love them … so that while recording they were actually able to stop and begin a number over again when they didn’t like the way it was going, or to repeat a tune immediately when they felt they had almost got it the first time. And the crowd, digging the idea of being part of a recording session, ate it up, just as they enjoyed hearing each set played back over the loudspeakers of the portable equipment. So the group was able to have all the benefits of recording in front of a live audience, without any of its usual drawbacks.
The Smith trio is a tight-knit unit, with a good deal of experience together. The decision to add a horn for most numbers on this record date obviously did not disrupt this unity: for not only is Selden Powell a fine man to have around at any time, but there is also a long-standing mutual respect and affection between Johnny and the tenorman. It was Johnny’s idea to call Powell for the date, and Selden responded with enthusiasm.
Two selections here are originals by the leader. Monterey Theme is an upbeat, nicely-defined piece, happily underlined by the full sound of the organ. It is, of course, named for the club. As for who or what Rufus Toofus is named for, I wouldn’t know – but what a wild title! I’d like to think of it as the name of a special shaggy dog that someone in the group knows. But be that as it may, on this number Powell for evermore proves, to my satisfaction, just how well he can take care of business.
Possibly the most impressive facet of this record is what the group does with some of the more familiar pop tunes. Listen to Far Away Places: it gets funky, then sharp-edged; its rhythmic pattern shifts and changes; and Eddie McFadden’s guitar does more playing around than you would have thought possible with his old tune. The same applies to Body and Soul, only more so. Did you think anything different could ever be done with it? Here, the old familiar melody lurks in the background, but Johnny’s choice of rhythms and Powell’s blowing (fine, so fine) give a new perspective on an old theme.
Finally, there’s a driving treatment of Real Gone Guy that points up, as well as anything I know of, one of the real values of an organ to jazz. Johnny Smith can sneak in and out of a solo and you’re hardly aware that the lead instrument has changed. It’s a horn, a guitar, any instrument – until you realize that what has happened is a subtle shift out of one solo and into another. It gives you the feeling that these men are all playing together; not just “taking turns,” not walking up front to take a chorus and then retiring into the background, but blending together with this organ in a very special, fine way.
I like this record. I like its well-balanced choice of tunes, and what it offers in the way of thinking about them. I like its interesting rhythms and scoring. I like the way it gives proper attention to the organ’s place in good jazz. You’ll like it, too …
(Les Davis has become well known to a large FM-radio audience in the New York City area
as one of the most interesting and knowing of jazz disc jockeys.)
Produced by ORRIN KEEPNEWS
Recorded (on November 8, 1962) by RAY FOWLER and DAVE JONES
Album design: KEN DEARDOFF
Photographs by JIM MARSHALL
This recording is available in both Stereophonic (RS 9442) and Monaural (RM 442) form.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street, New York City 36, New York