JIMMY SMITH — Midnight Special (review)

JIMMY SMITH — Midnight Special album cover Album · 1961 · Hard Bop Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Out of curiosity I looked up the definition of the word “cool” (as it pertains to art, that is) and soon realized that there is no description of that adjective that completely satisfies me in the modern dictionaries I consulted. So I’ll humbly offer my own and hope it enhances the general English-speaking vernacular. Cool = A coveted state of timeless existence that nothing disreputable or negative can find a way into and where perfection is possible to achieve. Okay, so it’s sorely lacking in scope and/or intellectual integrity but that’s how I feel about what Jimmy Smith and his talented cohorts did on his 1961 release, “Midnight Special.” It is irrefutably “cool.”

Of course, being a devotee of the charms associated with the magnificent Hammond B3 organ may play a big part in my assessment but that can’t be helped. In my book it’s one of the most expression-conducive of musical instruments ever invented and there’s just something about how, in the hands of a professional like Mr. Smith, it can penetrate the walls of my very soul like few others can. Jimmy was one of the very first to realize the Hammond’s vast potential and he successfully demonstrated to all that it belonged in the jazz realm just as much as the saxophone and the guitar. I’m sure the B3 had its haters because it tended to flood any given room with its massive aura, thus drowning out the more delicate tools of the trade in the process, but Smith wasn’t going to let the organ’s inherent obesity keep it out of the mainstream. What he did was to gather some of the genre’s best players in the studio and allow them to curl their artistry around the Hammond’s warm personality in a congenial environment. The result is a sizeable body of work that will endure for centuries to come. All of Jimmy’s albums have something in them to enjoy but I daresay you’ll find none more fulfilling than “Midnight Special.”

The title cut starts things off wonderfully. Don’t let the title fool you. It’s not a hokey instrumental version of the old rockabilly hit but a mature, flowing jazz piece written by Smith himself. Let me tell you, it doesn’t get any “cooler” than this. The vibe that he, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Donald Bailey concoct is so relaxed and smooth that it transports you to another time and place entirely. This is a brand of jazz that really needs no explanation. Turrentine’s “A Subtle One” is next and its infectious melody rides atop a snazzy shuffle laid down by Donald’s kit and Jimmy’s understated bass pedal work. The song also features an intriguing chord progression and Smith utilizes a very muted tone to surround Stanley’s sensuous sax before dialing up some treble to add punch to his outstanding organ solo. The combo’s rendition of the classic “Jumpin’ the Blues” is next and they establish a peppy, playful groove for it to travel in. Turrentine flits atop Jimmy’s creative chording for a while then steps back to let the B3 take command. Smith hunkers down and lets the magic stream out of his fingertips and it becomes crystal clear why the man was such an enormous influence on all who ever sat down at a Hammond. It’s worth mentioning that Mr. Burrell turns in a performance on his guitar that is sleek and sure.

A 1929 chestnut entitled “Why Was I Born?” by Jerome Kern (from the musical “Sweet Adeline”) gets a serene treatment from the quartet that transcends the norm. This old-school ballad begins with just organ and sax before Bailey’s drums slide in almost without notice. Stanley’s tone is like the finest of silk and there’s no showboating or overplaying in the vicinity as Jimmy backs him up exquisitely, taking advantage of the host of subtle variations in timbre that the B3 can offer. Turrentine’s saxophone flourish at the end is to die for. The record ends with a great version of Count Basie’s famous “One O’clock Jump.” Smith shifts his Hammond from cruise mode to a deep growl repeatedly and his pedal-generated “walking” bass line is sublime. The fact is that no one, absolutely no one knew how to manipulate the idiosyncrasies of the B3 like Jimmy did. He was a master.

Smith was one prolific dude, no doubt. He did 40 sessions for the Blue Note label in an eight year period from the late 50s to the mid 60s and this was but one of them. I don’t claim to have heard even a decent fraction of his output during his impressive career but I have yet to hear anything that I’d consider pedestrian. “Midnight Special” may not be the ultimate Jimmy Smith album but if you’re wanting to hear what made him so revered by keyboard players the world over then this album will educate you thoroughly in a little over a half an hour. Personally, I could listen to this kind of “cool” jazz every day.
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