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Individuality was a prized commodity during the soul jazz organ boom that bridged the Fifties and Sixties. With so many ensembles exploding like popcorn kernels in the cultural kettles of numerous North American cities, the critical slight of “a dime a dozen” carried more clout than most of the artists wanted to admit.
Prestige producer Esmond Edwards had an ear for the unusual, having signed Eric Dolphy to the label’s New Jazz subsidiary, so his advocacy of Johnny “Hammond” Smith’s combo makes sense. Smith eschewed the popular schematic of saxophone/guitar/organ for one replacing horn with vibraphone. Precedence for the format may have existed on earlier dates by Grant Green (for Blue Note) and Johnny Lytle (for Prestige), but Smith attempted to take it in his own direction, even if he didn’t always capitalize fully on the promise of the faith Edwards put in him.
The first of the two dates collected on this new twofer finds Smith fronting a quartet also comprised of McCoy, McFadden and Stevens. The 1961 session’s eight tunes are stamped mainly from slowly smoldering groove mold. “Sticks and Stones” builds on simple riffs and sliding beats as the basis for a series of steady, if somewhat staid solos. The snail’s crawl tempo of “Because You Left Me” doesn’t really help the cause of igniting the set either.
It’s not until the amiable lope of “Ribs an’ Chips” that the players start putting some truly compelling music down to tape. Smith’s solo percolates with greasy arpeggios as McCoy and McFadden comp expressively at his flanks. Stevens lays down a slippery supportive backbeat from behind his kit and the leader makes sure to return the favor when the spotlight hits mallets and plectrum in turn. The date’s remaining tracks trace short durations, but still manage to strike a number of creative sparks, especially on the effectively atmospheric reading of “Cry Me a River” and expectedly Latin-laced “Que Pasa,” where Smith makes adroit use of various effects settings.
The second session introduces bassist Wendell Marshall into the mix, and his presence is a welcome, if at times superfluous addition. Smith defers to McCoy during the disc’s eponymous Horace Silver composition, emphasizing the funk inherent to the tune’s changes in series of steady economical fills before rolling out his own heady exposition toward the close. “Autumn Leaves” holds strong connotations of church in the sustain-heavy chords of Smith’s reading. The amount of sentimentality involved skirts the edges of excess, but he manages to reel things back before crossing the line into overly maudlin territory. Even McFadden sounds ill at ease here, opting for an almost metronomic strum for much the piece in place of anything substantial. “Sad Eyes” and “Gone With Wind” scroll by with only occasional spikes in energy and creativity to distinguish them. Though these albums have their moments and a fair share of competent musicianship between them, in the larger scheme of Smith’s Prestige catalog each feels like a comparatively pedestrian effort.