JOHNNY “HAMMOND” SMITH: MR. WONDERFUL
JOHNNY “HAMMOND” SMITH QUINTET
Sonny Williams (tp) Houston Person (ts) Johnny “Hammond” Smith (org) Eddie McFadden (g) Leo Stevens (drs)
Plaza Sound Studios, NYC; 1963
Blues for De-De (4:59)
Mr. Wonderful (5:19)
Lambert’s Lodge (3:40)
Love Letters (5:40)
Blues on a Sunday (4:46)
Opus 2 (4:28)
Aside from its readily apparent musical virtues, this album offers welcome illumination of some significant, though rarely publicized, aspects of the current jazz picture.
For one thing, Johnny “Hammond” Smith plays the organ, an instrument still viewed with beady eyes by most jazz commentators, though it is solidly “in” with a large segment of the jazz audience – the buying public, as distinct from the hippie one. For another, the group introduced here is a working unit rather thana studio assembly. It is a group of the kind that operates for the most part on one of the many smaller-club circuits found throughout the land. Johnny Smith’s “turf” nowadays happens to be the upstate New York-New England area; like the others, it is served by players who make their living primarily outside the ever-shrinking circle of famous big-city jazz spots. They supply genuine musical entertainment for the local citizens at reasonable process and in a frequently congenial atmosphere where (dare one say it?) people still sometimes dance to jazz!
The nice tempos and always-swinging beat heard here reflect this context. But this is by no means a limitation. This is music that aims to please rather than to startle, but it is not just formula stuff. Johnny handles his challenging instrument with skill and discretion, and also shows a flair for inventive and eminently playable original melodies.
This aspect of Smith’s talent has become more apparent since he scrapped the customary organ-guitar-drums format in favor of the wider potential offered by trumpet and tenor saxophone. The two horns blend well with the textures of the organ, and Sonny Williams and Houston Person – both newcomers to recording – handle their ensemble and solo chores most capably. Smith discovered these two playing around New Haven, Conn., and they had been with him for several months when this album was made. Williams has a bright, cornet-like, well-articulated sound and clearly shows a command of the contemporary Clifford Brown-Miles Davis trumpet vocabulary. Tenorman Person, whose roots seem to e in Gene Ammons and “Lockjaw” Davis, has a big, warm sound and plays with swing, gusto and conviction.
Neither the hormen nor the leader indulge themselves in needlessly drawn-out ramblings. They tell their stories concisely and without redundancy. Ensemble voicings and the sequencing of solos are varied and tasty; and the balance is maintained between ensemble and solo work. It all helps to demonstrate that the musical language of swinging post-bebop jazz is far from being as exhausted as the avant-garde theorists claim. It is the spirit that counts, and honest swinging makes for better music than contrived “originality”.
Certainly Johnny “Hammond” Smith swings on the instrument whose name he has incorporated into his won (to avoid confusion with guitarist Johnny Smith and/or fellow organist Jimmy Smith). It is difficult to understand why the organ remains in a stepchild status in official jazz circles. (Down Beat polls, for example, still do not honor the instrument with a separate category, though flutes have long been granted this position.) Such performers as the two Smiths, Wild Bill Davis, Jack McDuff, Marlowe Morris, Bill Doggett, Milt Buckner, Sir Charles Thompson, Babyface Willette, and Sam Lazar – not to mention Daddy Fats Waller, who recorded pipe organ solos back in 1926, or the rare excursions of chap named Bill Basie – should have proven beyond dispute that jazz can be and is being played on the organ.
Johnny Smith’s sound is neither grating nor syrupy; he makes good use of synamics without overstepping the tolerable decibel-range; he utilizes the organ for rhythmic as well as harmonic expression; he “comps” well behind the other soloists; and his ideas are musical. In the tradition of Jimmy Smith (who revolutionized the instrument’s jazz usage and divested it of its chunky, movie-palace schmaltz overtones), he contrasts fleet single-note passages with chorded statements and uses his feet to produce a swinging bass pattern. (Judicious recording balance here helps bring out the good points – too many organ records suffer from wobbly, rumbling over-recording.)
Smith’s music speaks very well for itself: the program is bright and varied; most of the tempos swing in a realized groove; the six originals are fresh-sounding pieces of considerably more substance than most so-called jazz compositions; and the other two tracks are good pop standards that haven’t been done to death.
Each selection seems to have at least one special touch, on element of more than ordinary interest. The title tune, for example, is highlighted by some intricate ensemble work at the end. (its use as an album title, we should probably explain, is not to be taken as some sort of super-hyperbolic plug for the leader. Johnny is “Mr. Wonderful” only in the sense that the ebullience and occasional brash swagger of his playing suggest the character played by Sammy Davis, Jr., in the Broadway musical of that name). Blues for De-De, named after a lady unknown to us, has a most affecting beat and notable good guitar chording behind the organ solo. Guitarist Eddie McFadden, by the way, is not exactly a ringer here: though not a current band member, he was with Smith’s previous, pre-horn trio for quite some time, Gyra is named for someone we do know, although this ballad, with its attractively voiced horn sound, is rather more moody in character than the young lady whose name it bears – A&R man Orrin Keepnews’ secretary. Lambert’s Lodge is brisk and bright, and the drums (Leo Stevens is a good player) have a prominent role in the opening passages. Note also the unison punctuations that launch the first solo, and the use of the horns behind Smith’s very fleet statement.
On Love Letters, Jonny is agreeably funky without getting “greasy” and Person, in perhaps his best solo, really digs in. Blues on Sunday, medium-up with a back bear, has an especially fine moment when the ensemble’s double-time is picked up by Person for his first chorus. Departure gets a nostalgic flavor, though the tempo is quite lively. On Opus 2, organ and tenor produce and unusual sound (remarkably akin to one of Roland Kirk’s favorite unison devices!). this is the fastest track – though not frantically so – bringing to a sprightly close a consistently enjoyable album of music one would be tempted to call “unpretentious” if that adjective hadn’t been used so often as a cop-out for casualness and lack of imagination. But this album needs no apologies of any kind. This is good-time jazz of today – in the very best sense of that term.
DAN MORGENSTERN – Editor, JAZZ Magazine
JOHNNY “HAMMOND” SMITH’s previous Riverside LP is –
Black Coffee (442; stereo 9442)
NOTE: all 8 titles also on M-47072
RM(S9)-466 “Mr. Wonderful”
Produced by Ed Mitchell and Orrin Keepnews; recording Engineer: Ray Fowler