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Jimmy Smith: Jimmy Smith: Groovin’ at Smalls Paradise – 1957

Marc Davis By

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It’s loud, bombastic and somewhat experimental. It is Jimmy Smith pulling out all the stops--literally.
I love the jazz organ. I love Jimmy Smith. But I don't love Groovin' at Smalls Paradise.

When Smith burst onto the scene in 1956, he was a genuine phenomenon. Not only was he wildly popular, but also wildly prolific. In just three years, from 1956 to 1958, Smith put out a mind-boggling 23 albums. Blue Note had a bona fide star, and the label sure knew how to milk the craze.

Some of those records were just so-so. Some made you drop your jaw and think, "You can do THAT on an organ?!"

Smith's first few records fall into the so-so category. They were good, but they were also novelties, and Smith was still figuring out what he could say with this odd jazz instrument. In any case, they were popular.

Groovin' at Smalls Paradise falls into the jaw-dropping category. It's loud, bombastic and somewhat experimental. It is Jimmy Smith pulling out all the stops—literally—making music and sounds (and noise) that no one had ever made on a jazz organ.

This is a trio record—Smith on organ, Eddie McFadden on guitar and Donald Bailey on drums—but it's almost entirely Jimmy's show. When it cooks, Groovin' is red hot. Smith is positively on fire on blazingly fast bop tracks like "Indiana" and "The Champ" and "Walkin." Nearly all the songs, including the ballads, start with a one-minute improvised organ intro. This isn't organ music, in the usual sense, so much as Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker on a new instrument, spitting out notes hard and fast.

McFadden, the guitarist, is generally tasteful and laid back, though he gets a blazing spotlight on "Indiana." Bailey on drums is solid and dependable, but not flashy.

So what's not to like? First, there's the organ sound. On many tracks, Smith has the organ on some crazy staccato setting, where everything sounds too harsh. Then there are the ballads, which are merely so-so. Smith is best when he's incendiary. At a slow trot, he's less interesting.

Finally, there's the blues—as in, not enough. Smith's best records, just a year or two later, were filled with soulful, mind-blowing blues. Think of Back at the Chicken Shack and Midnight Special. There is one terrific blues-soaked track on Groovin'—"After Hours"—but it's not enough. I guess it took 23 records for Smith to finally find his trademark sound.

So Groovin' at Smalls Paradise (the complete 2-CD set with 13 tracks, most of them longer than 10 minutes) is great when it's fiery or bluesy. But it's a step or two away from greatness.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Easy to find

Cost: A ridiculous $21 new, but $7 used
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