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Blue Note years 
a buyer's guide 

A buyer's guide to Jimmy Smith


Jimmy Smith was quite a prolific artist. As such, buying his records can be rather a daunting prospect. Fear not, help it at hand!

To start with, it is helpful to view Jimmy's career in three basic sections. The first is, of course, his Blue Note period, which ran from 1956-63. Following this is his period on Verve records and he was here for ten years, up until 1973. The last section is made up of his wanderings between labels that made up the remaining thirty-two years of his life and his sporadic recording career.

For added ease of use, there are four further sections that should assist with any plans to buy the music of the Incredible Jimmy Smith.




The Blue Note years


Jimmy's recording career began at Blue Note records. He began very much a hard bop jazzman, but as he moved onwards, he began to create his own space and style. In time, this style became known as soul jazz.

In the seven years Jimmy was at Blue Note he was incredibly prolific, so much so that they didn't even release all of the material he recorded, because there was simply so much of it. Instead, around a good portion of it was held in their vaults and has been released occasionally in the years since he left them. Firstly during the height of his Verve fame, followed at the tail end of the '70s by a small batch put out by Blue Note Japan. Latterly there have been a few more 'new' albums, as well as an ongoing effort to tidy up the confused mess of his Blue Note albums. Many of these reissues have been remastered.

Currently, there are over 30 Jimmy Smith albums on Blue Note. Many of these have been reissued several times in the near fifty years since he started recording them. The basic unit for this period of Jimmy's career was the trio, which would consist of Jimmy, a guitarist and a drummer. However, when he started to gain popularity, the sessions were often expanded to include horn men and these often became something of a high class jam session. Many of these sessions were a who's-who of up and coming jazz stars, featuring the likes of Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson and Lee Morgan, to name but three.


Key albums  

The most famous issues from this period are The Sermon and Back At The Chicken Shack and both are strong albums that feature a proto soul jazz style. In terms of hard bop, Cool Blues is a particularly strong album.

The Sermon is probably height of the jam style of recording, although really only for the title track, as the others are not of an equal calibre. It's also worth noting the Jimmy doesn't actually do much soloing on here and instead lays down the groove as the horn men take their turns.

Back At The Chicken Shack is a four piece with Stanley Turrentine and is one of the best birth moments of soul jazz. As such it is a great starting point for to track both back into his bop period or forward into soul jazz proper.

Cool Blues was one of the many albums not released when it was recorded, even though it was assigned a Blue Note catalogue number. It features off cuts from Jimmy's Groovin' at Small's Paradise session.



Unless you're a rabid fan running out of other albums to buy, there are some albums that are less than essential. These, for the most part, are ones where Jimmy is using a different setting on his organ than the one he is best known for. It is a warbly setting that sounds suspiciously rinky-dink and is often played in a clunky organ-playing style known as 'locked hands', which was the primary method used before Jimmy re-wrote the rule book. The Sounds of Jimmy Smith and Plays Fats Waller are the worst offenders and should be avoided.



This will depend a lot on how old the copy of the album is. With Blue Note records, it can often be a bit tricky to tell, as there is very little to distinguish the first pressing from one made in Japan in the '70s from one made in France in the '90s.

If the record is certifiably an original you can expect to pay anything up to £30 for one, sometimes more. However, these will be very old records and you'll probably not want to play it, as it will decrease it's worth. It's easier to pick up reissues and these usually fall into the £8-£15 price bracket. Paying more than this is just silly, less and you're taking a risk.

Alternatively, you could just pick up the CDs, which should be in the £5-£10 range.




The Verve years


Jimmy's career entered a new phase when he moved to Verve. From the first album, he was teamed up with various big bands under various arranger and conductors. Most successful where his collaborations with Oliver Nelson at the helm. For the most part, the recordings on Verve are all in the soul jazz genre, which Jimmy is often giving credit for creating, even if it was more by his actions than by any specific plan. Towards the end of his time with Verve, partly due to both declining sales and artistic impetus, there were numerous forays into other jazz styles which met with varying degrees of success. By the end of his stay at Verve, he was mostly working in a jazz funk style.

This period of Jimmy's career was met with some degree of critical scorn. Mostly, this was due to the employment of a big band, which was seen as a stylistic step backwards but also in many cases due to his choice of material, that often fell outside the jazz idiom. However, much of this material was and is highly popular and it features Jimmy at the top of his game.

Unfortunately, Verve's recent history in reissuing these albums is rather shameful, when compared to Blue Note's. Hardly any of the reissues have been put out with extra tracks from their vaults and whether they have been remastered is unclear. Helpful though it is, because it makes the albums easier to find, they are for the most part quite mean reissues.


Key albums  

The most famous albums from this period are undoubtedly Root Down and The Cat. However, due to the range in styles through Jimmy's Verve releases, there are many other key moments, amongst them Monster is one of the strongest.

Root Down is simply the funkiest set Jimmy ever recorded. It is a bit unusual, as there is nothing else quite like it in his back catalogue and its fame is mostly due to The Beastie Boys sampling of the title track on their similarly titled tune from Ill Communication. It is a great set, though.

The Cat, featuring Lalo Schifrin as arranger and conductor, is easily Jimmy's most powerful, swinging big band recording. Built up in equal parts of Schifrin drama and Jimmy's soul, it is unbeatable. Also, the title track is one of his best known tunes and rightly so.

Monster, an album that has been consistently put down since it's creation (mostly because of the choice of material) is one of the strongest soul jazz sets in Jimmy's entire career. Arranger and conductor Oliver Nelson never nailed the combination of big band drama and outright soul jazz grooves better.


Jimmy sings!  

A special mention also needs to be made here of Jimmy's singing efforts. Beginning in 1965 with Got My Mojo Workin' Jimmy began to sing on some of his tunes. Being met with critical scorn didn't stop him either, as sales remained buoyant. Consequently, you can expect to hear Jimmy's rough, bluesy voice on many of the Verve albums made from '65 onwards. Best of the bunch is equally shared by the song Got My Mojo Working and the album Stay Loose.



Jimmy's Verve output covers many styles, so it's hard to single out any for avoidance. However The Other Side of Jimmy Smith is particularly poor, being a set of Jimmy with drums and strings, which is nothing more than easy listening. Other than the title track Groove Drops is not great either. Lastly, both I'm Gon' Git Myself Together and In A Plain Brown Wrapper see Jimmy in the land of funk and this may not be to all listeners taste, although they are both decent sets.



For the Verve records, pricing is quite skewed. On one had, critics and, so following, many pricing guides consider these as less desirable recordings than their Blue Note counterparts. Consequently a VG+/M copy of Monster can range anywhere from £5 to £20. It can be worth shopping around for a bargain, although be careful as these records tend to be less well looked after than the Blue Note ones. Best bet is to pay around £15 mark and hope you're not being ripped off. Check the shop / seller's return policy if you're in any way worried.

Many of these albums have now been re-issued by Verve, although since they are often full price and feature no extras, it's you would need to be desperate, with a few notable exceptions, Root Down and The Dynamic Duo being the only ones that spring to mind.




The wilderness years and beyond


After leaving Verve, Jimmy's career took a long wander in the wilderness. He recorded whenever he could and did so for a lot of different labels from big to small, at one point even setting up his own label Mojo and putting out several there.

To begin with Jimmy was mostly making jazz funk, apart from his live recordings (the first side of '75 and all of It's Necessary). By the turn of the '80s, he had mostly reverted back to a style somewhere between hard bop and soul jazz, with and increased number of blues in his sets.

In the early '90s, with interest in his music rapidly increasing, he again worked for both Blue Note and Verve and, although these sets were no match for his prime, they were none the less enjoyable.


Key albums  

The quality of these recordings through this period varies and none of them are by any means essential. Blacksmith is a fairly strong jazz funk set, although it doesn't have as much of Jimmy's organ as could be wished for. The curious may also want to check out Sit On It, which can lay claim to be Jimmy's only outright funk album. There is a track on it featuring him on a synthesizer and which does not have any organ at all.

From his return to the big labels, Angel Eyes is a surprisingly good set. Featuring nothing but ballads, blues and other slow tunes, it is a quiet enjoyable late night listen.



As already mentioned, there is nothing in this period that is essential, which is another way of saying that you could easily avoid all of it. Should you choose to venture into these dark waters, Off The Top is particularly bleak and should be left until desperate for a new Jimmy fix.



As with the Verve period, things are skewed here. Mostly, however, these can be picked up relatively cheaply, for less the £10. Many of these, in particular the Mojo albums, are recent reissues, still shrink wrapped.

Finding these on CD, however, is all a matter of luck. Most of the ones from the mid '80s onwards are easy enough to come by second hand and should be around £5. However the ones before that have in many cases never been issued on CD.




Live recordings


Throughout his entire career, Jimmy Smith recorded live, most often in a trio format. Often, these recordings were a chance to hear Jimmy letting his hair down. During his Blue Note period, these were released as part of his regular catalogue. Verve, however, saw things differently. Through Metro, a further subsidiary owned by Verve's parent MGM, several albums saw the light of day. In the '70s, a few further sets turned up, whilst in the '80s many of his releases relied on live recordings.


Key albums  

Mention has already been made of Cool Blues, one of his best live recordings for Blue Note and it is certainly worth a listen. From his Metro releases, easily the best is Live at the Village Gate which is an absolute classic and possibly his best live set available. 1978s It's Necessary is also a pretty good and was recorded at Jimmy Smith's Supper Club, a restaurant he owned and ran with his wife and where he was often to be found jamming on an evening in the latter years of that decade.



Salle Pleyel May 28th, 1965 (also known as Paris Jazz Concert) is a concert that was recently issued in its entirety as a two disc set. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the set, the sound quality on the CDs leaves a lot to be desired, being quite tinny as well as having an overly loud crowd. For contrast, four of the tunes here were put out at the time on a Metro release and the sound there is warm and lovely.



Most of these recordings are from cheapo labels and are therefore usually to be found around £5-£10. You never have to pay more than that. The Blue Note ones are covered in the Blue Note section.

Sadly, with the exception of the Blue Note recordings, few of these have ever made it onto CD. The only one to have done so, as noted to avoid above, can be found for around £5 for the double CD.






As with any successful artist, there are legions of compilations available. If you really must have one, then there are a few that look like reasonable introductions to Jimmy's music.


Key albums  

Blue Note fares best in the compilation stakes, with a collection called The Very Best Of Jimmy Smith which, in terms of their catalogue may well be. They also have a four disc Retrospective that expands on this, although buying four original albums would probably be a wiser investment.

Verve's many ideas for compiling Jimmy's work are less successful, possibly because of the variety of styles he recorded with them but more likely due to the same kind of management decisions that oversaw their patchy reissues. Of them all, Jimmy Smith's Finest Hour is probably best, with essential material making up slightly more than half of the CD.



Almost all of Verve's compilations feature unusual track lists that do not in any way do justice to Jimmy's work. Best not to give them any of your money and instead try and track down the original LPs.



Most of these CDs are in the mid to full price range.






There are a number of albums floating around that bear Jimmy Smith's name but which, upon closer inspection, don't have quite as much of the man as you'd hope for. These mostly feature material recorded in the few years after he began to play organ, but before he was signed to Blue Note records. He plays in the less than appetizing 'locked hands' style here and was a member of tenor sax man Don Gardner 's band. The material is pitched somewhere between rhythm 'n' blues and hard bop.


'Key' albums   The most convenient place to look for these recording are on The Fantastic Jimmy Smith, which conveniently collects all of it into one place. However, it has been getting packaged by cheapo labels since the mid sixties. One of the most common is Pickwick's Swings Along With Stranger In Paradise, which is cheap and relatively easy to come by.  
Avoid   Any mention of Dave 'Baby' Cortez, as the album will only have a few tracks by Jimmy. Essentially these albums were made to try and sell Cortez on the back of rare Jimmy Smith recordings and, as such, at most you'll get four tracks with Jimmy on them. Also, Kiki's Voice appears to only have on certifiable Jimmy Smith recording on it. What makes up the rest of the album is a mystery.  

These have always been budget LPs and CDs. So don't expect to pay more than £5 for either.




A word of warning


There was another organist called Jimmy Smith. He appears to be British and was one of the legion of cheesy duffers making cheap LPs to be played at dubious family gatherings in the '70s. There is one of his LPs listed on allmusic in the Jimmy Smith section, but it is categorically not by the Jimmy Smith we've come to know and love. If the album is on Grovesnor or Decca or is called Tomorrow's Sounds Today, or features a cheesy white man on the sleeve, under no circumstance buy it. You will be very disappointed.




  This guide is (c) copyright Stewart Bremner 2006 and should not be used without permission.
Thanks to Lubomir Stroetmann for inspiration

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