Johnny "Hammond" Smith will always be tagged as the other Smith on the B-3, grouped together with a host of other organists who never managed to break free from the club circuit into the realm of true infamy. However, Smith's recordings are slowly making their way back into print via generous two-fer CDs from Prestige, giving us an opportunity to reassess the career of an artist stuck in the minor leagues.
At the time that the two sessions compiled on Opus de Funk were cut, the soul jazz craze allowed labels like Prestige to recruit players like Smith to churn out an endless supply of organ-based jazz (much of which was pretty interchangeable). Smith was never quite able to get his groove on every time he went into the studio, but this CD pairs two records where he was able to gather a group that could not only play, but also could follow Smith's aspirations to musically break free form the clichés of the chitlin' circuit. He abandons the usual tenor saxophone in the front line, substituting Freddie McCoy's vibes instead, giving the group a softer sound and a wider palate to work with and pretty much ensuring that there will be no songs with "gravy" in the title.
Fortunately, too, this is a talented bunch. Eddie McFadden, who paid his dues with none other than Jimmy Smith back when he was steaming through programs of standards, is quite comfortable filling in laid-back licks and picking through the heads with McCoy. Smith himself seems content to vamp away in the background, letting his stellar front line enjoy all the work, chugging along with the responsive rhythm section (and yes, that is Wendell Marshall from the Ellington band on bass.)
Smith allegedly chose the lineup to further his commitment to being regarded as a serious jazz artist rather than a peddler of soulful grooves, and this stubbornness carries over to the track listing, filled with well-chosen standards like "Autumn Leaves" and "Gone With the Wind." This approach is a breath of fresh air from the usual soul jazz offerings of blues and boogaloo. Even Smith's originals feature actual melodies rather than the predictable bluesy vamps, particularly the beautiful "Sad Eyes."
Opus de Funk is the most consistently satisfying of Smith's two-fer CDs currently available, and it's notable for breaking free of the overworked soul jazz formula from the era. It won't steam up your glasses, but it will be a satisfying listen.
1. Sticks and Stones 2. Because You Left Me 3. Ribs an' Chips 4. Cry Me A River 5. Que Pasa? 6. Invitation 7. Spring Is Here 8. Stimulation 9. Opus de Funk 10. ALmost Like Being In Love 11. Autumn Leaves 12. Sad Eyes 13. Gone With the Wind 14. If Someone Had Told Me 15. Shirley's Theme.
Johnny "Hammond" Smith - organ; Freddie McCoy - vibes; Eddie McFadden - guitar; Wendell Marshall - bass; Leo Stevens - drums.