On a purely non-musical basis, Blue Note's continued mining of releases from the catalog of The Three Sounds comes at a befitting moment, taking into account the recent and premature deaths of bassist Andy Simpkins and pianist Gene Harris. Of course, the music is what matters most in the end, and a great deal of the music this group released over the years is of a popular and benevolent nature. Somehow though, critics took issue with the group's commercial successes, suggesting that widespread appeal negated artistic substance. This was unduly the case in 1966 when the group returned to the Blue Note fold after several years recording for the Verve, Mercury, and Limelight labels. Their first album back, Vibrations
was lambasted by critics and continues to be considered a lesser affair, despite its many entertaining qualities.
The foregoing then brings us to Live at the Lighthouse, recorded in 1967 as a follow-up and containing some of the very same musical elements that have always been part and parcel of the group's approach. This release fared much better with audiences and reviewers alike, yet it would bare a strong resemblance in some aspects to the flatly disregarded Vibrations. The point is that both albums are quite fine and Lighthouse, in particular, is one damn remarkable record, especially now that eight additional performances have been added to this compact disc reissue. Formerly intended to be a double record set, the original ended up being a single disc, leaving much extra material in the vaults. In fact, discographies list further cuts that are not included on this CD presumably for technical or artistic reasons.
Getting back to that connection with the Vibrations LP, it should be noted that Harris decided to overdub organ on five of the seventeen selections heard here just like he had done on three of the previous album's tracks. This was accomplished by coming into the club in the afternoon when no patrons were there and multi-tracking organ and piano parts. While the original vinyl then added fake applause to suggest that these cuts were done live, all extemporaneous "window dressing" has been left off of this new reissue.
The material proves to be nothing out of the ordinary, but as was the case with much of Harris' playing, the blues are never far away and tunes such as "Drown In My Own Tears," and "River Shallow" catch this trio at its peak. Could it also be that Harris was making a nod towards West Coast "soul man" Les McCann with "Makin' Bread Again," and "Bad, Bad, Whiskey?" Two of the lengthiest and unencumbered of the lot prove to be "June Night" and Nat Adderley's splendid "Never Say Yes," both also textbook examples of how to artfully use tension and release and dynamics for dramatic effect.
As for the rest of the Sounds, bassist Simpkins' deep-throated anchor helped keep things buoyant, while new drummer Donald Bailey (original drum man Bill Dowdy had left a few years back, being replaced by Kalil Madi and then Bailey) plays with the finesse and musicality that you'd expect from one of Jimmy Smith's most valuable past comrades. While the group's last breaths would be just a few years away, Live at the Lighthouse captures The Three Sounds at or near their peak and in one of only three live performances ever caught on tape. Let's cherish it.