The great organist Jimmy Smith left us on February 8th at the age of 79. I was especially saddened to hear of his passing because I had started an appreciation piece on him last December but never completed it as these things are wont to go. He truly was the heart of soul jazz.
He blended jazz, blues, R&B, bebop and even gospel into an exciting stew - an idiom that produced many imitators, followers and fans.
Fair enough, I suppose, but when you say blended, I think of tepid purée not the kind of propulsive music that sprung from Smith's hands. This is a man, in a category of his own, who was dubbed the "Emperor of the Hammond Organ". He featured, like the Kings, Dukes and Counts, among the royalty of the jazz tradition.
Pardon me, if you will, while I set the record straight:
Soul Jazz is ecstatic music.
It's about the blowing sessions that happen after the main show, long past the midnight hour, when the lights are low and the musicians are loose and playing for keeps. At the after-party jam, it's all about earthly delights, loosened ties and unbuttoned collars. You'll hear complex grooves and humourous exchanges in the music: Can you top this? they're asking.
There'll be virtuousity that will make you stand up, thump your feet and rumble with someone close. The laughs are heartier and the flirtations are more intense. It's a celebration of the sensual and the sacred. Musically, it's the funky, greasy blues of back-alley jook joints with the prospect of the Good Lord the next day.
And Jimmy Smith best illustrated this notion: after playing through the night at the grimiest of speakeasies, you would find him on the organ at the church service in the morning, energetically lacing melodies to punctuate the reverend's call. All the while, the crowd from the previous night would be nursing their hangovers in soul claps amongst the congregation.
Consider the one-two punch of Midnight Special, which is about as earthy as these things come, and the revival and church hall vibe of Prayer Meetin'. They are part and parcel of this innovative musical conception. Smith's music speaks loudly and was heavily sampled by hip-hoppers and revered by the acid jazz/rare groove crowd. The aesthetic of A Tribe called Quest sprung fully formed from this soul jazz confection. Exciting is the least of it.