Organ-mania: Trudy Pitts, Radam Schwartz, Gary Versace & Jimmy Smith
Once upon a time, no one had the foggiest notion as to the absolute musical heat that could be generated upon placing the organ in a jazz setting. "Surely you can't be serious, the skeptics would say. "You mean organ, like the one the little old lady plays at my church on Sunday? I think not!
The skeptics were quickly silenced, however, in 1956 when with his first Blue Note recordings Jimmy Smith gallantly rode in atop his fire-breathing Hammond B-3 and changed forever the dynamics of the mainstream jazz landscape. Since then, the organ has become just as commonplace in jazz ensembles as the bass and drums and thousands have continued in the tradition spearheaded by Smith, who made the instrument once totally associated with church sanctuaries the musical weapon-of-choice in seedy bars and lounges the world over. Jazz fans will be happy to know that, along with a new reissue of a classic Smith album, a few contemporary artists have recently released even more proof that there's way more to the organ than little old ladies in the pulpit.
Along with Smith, many other great jazz organists materialized during the '50s-60s such as Jack McDuff, Larry Young and Lonnie Smith. One that you don't hear about often enough, however, is Shirley Scott who during her time as the wife of saxophonist Stanley Turrentine made music that could easily stand up to that of any of those jazz juggernauts. Keeping the Scott tradition alive today is Trudy Pitts, who recently released Live at the Great American Music Hall, recorded in San Francisco in May 2007. Like Scott, Pitts also collaborates with her musician husband, in this case Bill "Mr. C Carney on drums. The two lovebirds, along with guitarist Carl Lockett, give us an enjoyable jazz trio set featuring a series of lengthy interpretations of jazz standards, as well as some bluesy original numbers. Pitts quickly proves worthy of Scott and honors her legacy by furthering the notion that, given the opportunity, women can swing just as hard as men any day. She also proves to have aspirations of being a latter-day Ella Fitzgerald, as she purrs the vocals on a soulful rendition of "Make Someone Happy . This is as good an example of straight-ahead jazz organ as you'll find today.
The next two selections hearken back a little more closely to a different jazz giant, the aforementioned Larry Young, who took Jimmy Smith's breakthrough one step further by making people see the organ as an improvisational agent worthy of Miles' trumpet or Coltrane's saxophone. The first is the new release from organist Radam Schwartz and his ensemble, Conspiracy For Positivity: Magic Tales. The disc gives us a slightly more modal demonstration of what's possible with the jazz organ, with Schwartz and company taking on a group of mostly Schwartz originals, as well as a few covers, notably Joe Henderson's "The Kicker . Along with James Gibbs III on trumpet, alto saxophonist Anthony Ware, drummer Joe Brown Jr. and alternating guitarists Misha Fatkiev and Ryan Clackner, Schwartz delivers an accessible set that will satisfy fans with inclinations towards both the straight-ahead and slightly-far-out sounds.
The same can be said for the new Gary Versace release Reminiscence, wherein the organist's trio (rounded out by guitarist Vic Juris and drummer Adam Nussbaum) literally reminisces about the ghosts of jazz past by paying tribute to original works by such great jazz pianists as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and Cedar Walton. Although this one can be considered slightly more 'out there' than the Schwartz disc, the music is definitely worthy of any of Larry Young's more straight-ahead work.
This brings us, of course, to the newest Jimmy Smith reissue from Blue Note Records: 1961's Straight Life, another long-out-of-print trio album, featuring Smith veterans Quentin Warren (guitar) and Donald Bailey (drums). The group's repertoire consists of mostly standards (highlights include "Swanee and "Star Dust ), as well as a couple of Smith originals. The music is, as expected, superb.
And while Straight Life is nothing less than a pure joy to listen to, it does spawn a bit of frustration towards Blue Note and their apparent refusal to release a number of other albums from the '50s that feature Jimmy Smith in a larger ensemble, such as A Date with Jimmy Smith Vols. 1 & 2 (though released as part of a Mosaic boxed set) and Confirmation, among others. Along with Softly As a Summer Breeze, The Sounds of Jimmy Smith and At the Organ: Vol. 3, Straight Life is the most recent in a long line of Smith trio albums from Blue Note; it only confounds this listener as to why they choose to deprive audiences of so much Smith music that simply sits in the vault.
Tracks and Personnel
Live at the Great American Music Hall
Tracks: Feelin' It; When Lights are Low; Jitterbug Waltz; Mean Perspective; Amazing Grace; Autumn Leaves; Make Someone Happy.
Personnel: Trudy Pitts: organ; Bill Carney: drums; Carl Lockett: guitar.
Conspiracy for Positivity: Magic Tales
Tracks: You'll Always Be My Baby; Sands of Time; Sunday Off Broadway; Magic Tales; The Kicker; Imprecise Exactitudes; Love Conversation; Stevie's Beautiful Soul; Between Me And You; Half Gibbs Full Nelson; World Anthem.
Personnel: James Gibbs III: trumpet; Anthony Ware: alto saxophone; Misha Fatkiev: guitar (tracks 1,2,3,4,5,7,10); Ryan Clackner: guitar (tracks 6,8,9,11); Joe Brown Jr.: drums, percussion; Anthony Nelson: baritone saxophone (tracks 3,4,7,8,10); Joe Brown Sr.: congas (track 11); Gary Oleyar: violin (track 7); Radam Schwartz: organ.
Tracks: Hindsight; For Bill; Thelonious; Alone And I; For McCoy; Prism; Lennie's Pennies; Floater; Let Me Try; Webb City.
Personnel: Vic Juris: guitar; Adam Nussbaum: drums; Gary Versace: Hammond B3 organ.
Tracks: Straight Life; Stuffy; Star Dust; Sweet Sue, Just You; Minor Fare; Swanee; Jimmy's Blues; Yes Sir, That's My Baby; Here's To My Lady; Minor Fare.
Personnel: Jimmy Smith: organ: Quentin Warren: guitar; Donald Bailey: drums.