Jazz community appeared with Jimmy Smith opening night at the Catalina in the person of Kenny Burrell. The former LA club owner apparently fighting a cold caught during his recent tour, which included Italy and Israel, Smith still delivered knuckle busting runs and uptown barbecue funk that could have hurt a healthy man. His association with Burrell goes back to their classic early ‘50’s collaborations on Blue Note, and their set list of blues, ballads, and Ellington celebrated that association. Smith cut his earliest ‘45’s with a singing drummer, and keeping the tradition alive was Jimmy Jackson. 6-string bassist Jonathan Woods broke into professional gigs with Brother Jack McDuff. He tweaked the beat, staying steady with Jimmy and adding ornamentation. Louisiana sax man Herman Riley brought his r&b background and Ellington to the jam, and Good Sport Award to rising guitarist Mark Whitman for giving up his chair to Burrell.
Opening with “Satin Doll,” Riley made it clear he was not in a hurry. He lingered over the phrases, savoring the tune. Burrell proved to be an easy mesh from the start, but who better to play Ellington? Following with “Mood Indigo,” Burrell takes it for a bluesy ride, with sleek octave leads and single note runs. Riley enters on soprano, and like Burrell gets acquainted during the first reading of the tune, then digs on the second. Smith needs no warm up round, he flies from the first, quick and witty. During Burrell’s complex solo coda, Smith shushed chattering audience members.
Jackson invested his pleasant baritone into the ballad, “Save Your Love,” and then opened “St. Thomas,” playing his kit with his hands. Shifting the rhythm from calypso to straight ahead, the band set the stage for Riley’s variations. Then Smith and the band left the stage to Burrell who indulged in some masterful solo ballad playing. On “Rain or Shine,” and “My One and Only Love,” he was all subtlety and skill, hard to match for sheer musicality. His dazzling technique morphed easily through chorded leads, octave leads, single note runs, chords, etc.
Refreshed from their break, Smith and company rocked it hard with “8 Counts For Rita,” a soulful strut from Smith’s latest release, Dot Com Blues. Riley worked hard on soprano, and Burrell grooved deeply, playing slippery and snaky. On the next blues, Riley traveled back to New Orleans and Burrell played with authority. Smith sent cascading layers of runs over the audience, and Wood proved some points during his solo, which included a “Blue Monk” sample.
Smith introduced a “lowdown stinkin’ dirty blues.” and the band complied. Riley started off bending notes like a hard-edged Ben Webster, digging in and bringing up gold. Burrell sounded lazy while moving through a complex chorded lead, and when Smith’s turn came around he preached. On the unseasonable, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Jackson played sleigh bells and Burrell managed to swing it anyway.
A beautiful reading of Thad Jones’ (Roland Hanna’s?) “A Child is Born,” brought out the best in everyone, with Riley wringing the sweetness out of the tenor, working the gentler side. The band picked up the tempo for Burrell who recorded the tune for CTI in the ‘70’s. His chorded solo demonstrated some of his best work of the night.
The packed Tuesday night crowd responded enthusiastically, happy to eavesdrop on old friends in spirited conversation.