There are literally thousands of types, models and brands of modern electronic keyboards. Most of them come and go quickly as new innovations and technology makes last year’s model passé or obsolete. But there’s one instrument in that category that has endured since its inception. The Hammond B3 organ. Yes, it’s been imitated and many of today’s state-of-the-art synthesizers can mock its signature sound to the point where it’s very difficult to tell the difference but most players will tell you that there’s nothing equivalent to sitting before the real thing, switching on those whirling Leslie speakers and letting the beast roar in its natural habitat. And any discussion of its versatility will always be incomplete unless one brings up the man who, more than anyone else, brought it out of the church sanctuary and into the shadier but more expressive world of jazz music. Jimmy Smith. Jimmy didn’t just use the instrument as a stepping stone to being a well-rounded cat on an array of keyboards, he dedicated himself to becoming recognized as the undisputed master of the Hammond B3 who would not only inspire organists for generations to come but to show them exactly how it’s done.
I first became intrigued by the instrument when I heard Dave “Baby” Cortez’ “The Happy Organ” blaring from tinny AM radios in the late 50s. As I got older I realized that Cortez was only exploiting the novelty of the B3 and that, if I wanted to hear its true magic, I needed to procure some LPs by Smith. I did (and wish I still had them) but soon after the British invasion commenced and I started hearing the Hammond in bands as diverse as The Animals and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown I sorta forgot about Jimmy. When prog rock burst upon the music scene in the late 60s and blossomed throughout the 70s I could hear Smith’s techniques surfacing in the playing of Keith Emerson, Jon Lord and Rick Wakeman (just to name a few) with regularity. Jimmy never stopped making music but he stayed in the background for the majority of his life, content to perform regularly in his own night spot in California and to take part in sessions occasionally with some of the biggest names in jazz. He died in 2005 and was awarded the NEA Jazz Master award (America’s highest honor) for his substantial contributions to the cause. His last major album was “Dot Com Blues” released in 2000 and it’s significant on many counts. He was in his mid 70s, it was his first record in over 5 years and, because of the luminaries who were honored to take part in its creation, it’s the most vocalized disc Smith ever put out.
The album opens with “Only in it for the Money,” a song by Dr. John that the composer also sings in his inimitable rasp. It’s a swinging shuffle with a big band backing and you can tell immediately that Smith’s B3 is the genuine monster, not just some plastic plank’s fancy LED screen setting. He makes it talk tough and stroll with a confident swagger. The tune’s constant key changes keep it from getting stale. The hot, funky groove for “8 Counts for Rita” sizzles like frying bacon under Jimmy’s Hammond-isms and the jazzy chords on the turnaround are a treat. Russell Malone’s guitar solo is remarkably George Benson-like. “Strut” is a blues shuffle brought in by Taj Mahal and his husky voice and the cool stuttering in his phrasing make the track a standout. His guitar ride is penetrating and just what the song requires. The lazy vibe surrounding their rendition of the old standard “C.C. Rider” is nothing to write home about but several spirited organ and guitar leads make for a pleasant listen. It’s somewhat comforting to sit back and hear seasoned professionals doing their thing so effortlessly. Smith is joined by Etta James for their energized version of “I Just Wanna Make Love to You.” It’s another swinging shuffle feel but Etta’s contagious sass and the background chorale (that reminds me of Lyle Lovett’s in his Large Band) elevate this song to the status of greatness and Jimmy responds on his B3 with some electrifying runs. This cut alone is worth the price of admission.
Their cover of “Mood Indigo” is next. It’s extremely subtle and sexy, glowing like a candle on a dark night. The deft touches from the musicians involved are sumptuous but not without a sprinkle of levity tossed in from time to time to keep things from making you drowsy. Slowly but surely the intensity increases by increments until the end when they drop back down to the original vibe. Jimmy demonstrates that, despite his age, he hasn’t lost a single step and once again Malone’s guitar work is superb. Keb Mo’ is on hand to jump into the festivities for his tune, “Over and Over.” It’s a nice blues number with some interesting quirks that distinguish it from average fare. The horn section adds quiet class to the track and the backup chorus is way cool. On “Three O’ Clock Blues” B.B. King shouts “da blooz” in his unmistakable fashion. It’s good for what it is, the understanding being that these fellas could do this in their sleep. “Dot Com Blues” is a jazzy jam with perky atmospherics and tight accents punctuated by Harvey Mason on drums and Reggie McBride on bass. What you get here is a lot of fiery licks popping out of the Hammond and Russell’s guitar while Mason gets downright adventurous on his trap kit. This kind of fun is what I came here to hear. “Mr. Johnson” is feverish funk at its best, goaded by Chris Stainton’s speakeasy joint piano and a full horn ensemble. There’s a deliciously sleazy sax solo and Stainton delivers a passionate ride followed by Malone’s tasty guitar lead but then Jimmy takes over and conducts a clinic on how to wring the most from the Hammond B3’s ample guts. He ends with the sultry “Tuition Blues” that starts with a gospel-styled intro on the organ and leads to his pulling every nuance out of the instrument. Russell’s guitar solo is somewhat unorthodox but never boring and you can’t help but be impressed by the tightness of the rhythm section.
What really sticks out above all the fine performances you’ll encounter inside this record is Jimmy Smith’s unequivocal expertise on his instrument of choice. He glides over the double keyboards like an Olympian skater and he knows just which set of levers to pull and push in order to provide the perfect tone for each individual song. Luckily for us he left behind a vast catalog of his music to treasure for centuries to come and it’s my hope that his noble legacy will never be allowed to fade into obscurity. This album is a fitting tribute to him and one I’m glad was completed before his death. The old man still had it. Not a bad disc to put on when you’re not sure what you’re in the mood to hear because Jimmy Smith can always make you feel better.