Out & About

Despite long-standing relationships with jazz labels such as Blue Note and Verve that stretch back to the mid-1950s and early 1960s respectively, organist Jimmy Smith has never been, plainly speaking, a jazz player. Sure, his early trio output and solo work on the surface conformed to the form, but many of his solo recordings were thought at first to be the result of overdubs, not of Smith's masterful manipulation of his Hammond. And his trio was, for the 1950s, an odd grouping of guitar, organ and drums. It had the feel and spiritedness of bebop, yet Smith pulled more liberally from other styles. Granted, he pioneered the use of the electric organ in a jazz setting, but his appeal wasn't as limited.

By the time he started recording for Verve in the 1960s, he was playing and composing for larger ensembles that included such noted jazz regulars as trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, trumpeter Thad Jones, drummer Grady Tate, arranger-saxophonist Oliver Nelson and guitarist Wes Montgomery. It was still jazz, strictly speaking, but Smith seemed to be more in tune sonically with the strides being made in popular black musical forms. Some of Smith's '60s Verve releases, while not as straight-ahead jazz as his '50s Blue Note output, are as rollicking and swinging as anything put out by Junior Walker and the All Stars or the Maceo Parker-led JB's.

In fact, Smith, perhaps even more than purist jazz populists like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, did his best to keep jazz in tune with the times in the 1960s and early 1970s. And it's a quality that owes much to his performing style. He combined the earthy, melodic sophistication of an Erroll Garner with the playful, freewheeling mix of blues, R&B and gospel rhythmic energy of Billy Preston, perhaps known best for his work with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

Of course, come the early 1980s, such an organic approach to a fusion of forms didn't sit well in jazz and soul/R&B circles that became more mainstream in the case of the former and a niche audience in the case of the latter. Nevertheless, Smith's vibrant playing has kept a-rolling, though his latest release, this year's Dot Com Blues on Blue Note, is more concerned with pairing Smith with more popular guests than it is with showing off his dynamic skills. Admittedly, there's a certain nostalgic charm in hearing Smith joined by other veterans like Dr. John, Taj Mahal and Etta James, but you still wish he had been left alone to stir up the good cheer of 1957's House Party or 1966's The Dynamic Duo. It's really not Smith's fault that parts of Dot Com are tepid, it's just that the guest vocalists make it feel more like a vocal album than Smith's own. But when he tackles the classic Ellington ballad "Mood Indigo" and turns it into an atmospheric stunner accompanied only by drums, bass and guitar, Smith proves he's still got a few tricks up his sleeve.