Sometimes circumstances guarantee albums a certain stature before they hit the street. One simply hopes the music proves worthy.
The death of legendary organist Jimmy Smith a week before the release of Legacy, headlined by protégé Joey DeFrancesco, assures strong interest from both old and new organ jazz crowds. It's a solid coda for a five-decade career that redefined the role of the Hammond B-3 organ, although on merit it's a bit short of Smith's top work.
Smith, who performs on the latter part of DeFrancesco's live 2000 release, Incredible!, spent his final couple years playing weekly jam sessions with the younger organist. They're in a comfort zone on Legacy, their first studio collaboration, which focuses largely songs from Smith's career, along with a handful of standards and DeFrancesco originals.
There's more refinement than revolution from both men, but also more comfort than cliché, and comparing them is entertaining throughout the eleven-song, seventy-minute collection. DeFrancesco, as one might expect, puts out most of the more energetic passages, but Smith is hardly in danger of fading into the background, and his occasional verbal commentsnot to mention his raspy vocals on "I've Got My Mojo Workin'"?give this the feeling of a fun and loose session.
Many songs found on previous Smith albums gets a speedier, funkier and sometimes less subtly appealing makeover on Legacy. "Back At The Chicken Shack"? features a heavy infusion of modern percussion backing organs that are thicker, louder, and alternate between passages of greater complexity and repetitiveness than the 1960 original, but ultimately the piece offers an equal level of intrigue and artistry. Saxophonist James Moody gets "special"? billing for his appearance on "Jones'n For Elvin,"? but it's drummer Byron Landham who fittingly supplies the life of this tribute to another recently departed legend.
For sheer enjoyment, Incredible! probably remains the superior collaboration, which an audition of "St. Thomas"? (the one tune shared between the albums) makes clear. It's about twice as fast on the live album after emerging from an extended medley that begins with "The Skeezer"? and passes through some nursery-rhyme phrasing in transit. On Legacy it's short and one of the lower-key songs on the album, a shame for a whimsical tune with such a common frame of reference. Also, the generation gap can be heard on DeFrancesco's modernistic title track, where the more complex pacing is a bit at odds with the classic piecesbut suggesting it be left out is also to be hopelessly mired in the past.
Like watching an athlete who's lost his game, it's painful to see someone try to prop up inferior late-career performances by a musical legend. No such effort is needed on Legacy if you're willing to accept the album as a quality work without trying to elevate it into a landmark. Doing so pays proper final respect to Smith and remembers him as he entertained listeners on an everyday basis, without the false pretensions at odds with the workmanlike music he defined.
Personnel: Joey DeFrancesco and Jimmy Smith, Hammond B-3 organs; James Moody, saxophone; Byron Landham,
drums; Paul Bollenback, guitar; Tony Banda, bass; Ramon Banda, percussion; Steve Ferrone, drums