Johnny Smith may not be a musical household name, but his rural Missouri roots and Uncle Delaney and Aunt Bonnie Bramlett
gave him some serious soul bona fides. Following a musical youth and a stint in the Marines, Smith returned to his second home of Southern California, skirting big fame, making smart and informed pop music.
Now having relocated to the Bay Area, Smith has put together a vibrantly smart trio with guitarist Mark Holzinger and bassist Chris Justin. Smith contributes his acoustic Martin D35, harmonica, and the most expressive vocal capability this side of Joe Cocker. Smith sews all of these elements into a quilt with the Great American Songbook, and the results are beyond refreshing: they are elemental.
Smith recasts several Sinatra warhorses, repackaging them for a new generation. The opener, "I've Got You Under My Skin, and "That Old Devil Moon kick things off in style. Add "Fly Me to the Moon, "There Will Never Be Another You and "Come Rain or Come Shine, and you have a mini-tribute to the Chairman of the Board. These songs are all dispatched with the primacy of folk blues and the rustic all-American vernacular of Smith, scrubbing them so fresh that the listener may gasp. But this Sinatra homage is merely the cream.
Miles Davis' "All Blues is given a down-home treatment with Smith's rural harmonica and Midwestern delivery. I will bet few people have ever heard Miles covered like this. The pinnacle of the disc is the trifecta of soul jazz: Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Bobby Timmons' "Moanin' and Horace Silver's "Song for my Father. Smith's densely expressive soul brogue sends these songs over the top. Instrumentally, San Francisco Bay Jazz sounds like a California version of Le Hot Club du France, coupling Smith's acoustic guitar with Holzinger's electric. Justin holds his own with a left-handed 4/4, keeping all the pieces skipping along. The tipple point is reached on "Moanin' for all three instumentalists.
Recordings like San Francisco Bay Blues make writing about music a true pleasure. The stars are in line for Johnny Smith et al. and for us listeners also. This is an end-or-the-year pick for sure.
Visit Johnny Smith on the web.
Track Listing: I
Personnel: Johnny Smith: guitar, harmonica, vocals; Mark Holzinger: guitar; Christ Justin: bass.
Year Released: 2006
| Record Label: Self Produced
| Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream