Jimmy Smith did not invent the organ. This is a fact. Long before his arrival, the instrument had been the vehicle of countless memorable performances. Word to Fats Waller. But as with anything, there are architects and then there are innovators. I prescribe unto Smith the latter.
Anyone can learn to play the organ, but few can extend it beyond the possibilities agreed upon in its formative years. Progression is what defines many, if not most, of those we consider legends. These moments exist throughout the canon of music. Jimi Hendrix reinvented the electric guitar. Little Walter repurposed the harmonica. And while too often overlooked, Jimmy Smith redefined the electric organ for an entire generation of artists.
Jimmy was a virtuoso. And that doesn’t mean that he simply played really fast (People like to make that the catch-all of technical acuity.) Smith maximized the endless space found on a B-3. With one hand, he played his role. And with another, he could play yours, probably better. Imagining a bass line constructed entirely on an organ is unfathomable. To be honest, I’m waiting for this part of the Jimmy Smith legend to be revealed as a hoax. But I suppose that’s a tenet of sainthood—performing miracles.
His significance was understood early and often, perhaps, most actualized on The Champ (1956). On just his second release, Jimmy Smith solidified himself as a solo artist. However you want to look at it, this is his show. From the beginning, Smith is an absolute loose cannon. He blitzes the opening track with an aggressive performance that never seems to let up. For a full nine minutes, Smith keeps the audience both uncomfortable and engaged with his frantic play. His organ display is as dynamic as it is unique, but what’s most significant about this record is that the underlying text is bebop. This is a Dizzy Gillespie composition and Smith translated it into a language only spoken on the Hammond. “The Champ,” indeed.
Structurally, this is the album’s blueprint—organ-driven bebop. Its vivacity is, however, a bit of a misnomer. The frantic pacing discovered at the onset, does speak to The Champ in its entirety. Smith levels the mood with “Bayou,” incorporating a blues feel not yet explored. It gives the ballad an additional touch of soul. The same can be said about his rendition of the standard, “Moonlight in Vermont.” Before this, my lasting impressions of the composition began and ended with the tender feelings emerging from the collaborative efforts of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. And yet, Smith’s succinct strokes create a more demanding auditory experience. Yes, it is a ballad. But it is anything but reserved.
What Smith gives us on The Champ is remarkable in two very distinct ways. On a very basic level, we’re dealing with quality music. The album just sounds good. There needn’t be any of the standard breakdown or deconstructive overachievement. On any level, this can and should be recognized as something worth listening to, if even for background purposes. But in a greater sense this album carries a legitimate importance in the career of Jimmy Smith, as well as all those who came after.
As I said before, the organ existed well before Jimmy Smith arrived on the scene. But what he did in his career and most especially on The Champ was legitimize the organs presence in the jazz world. Up to that point in the mid-50s, no one had made the organ a spirited medium for music making. When I listen to this album, I hear the unrelenting technique of Art Tatum and the demonstrative touch of Ahmad Jamal. But we’re not talking about a piano. We’re now in unchartered territory. From this, we get a compelling reason to elevate the organ into the extended family of jazz instrumentation.
Today, I was listening to Brother Jack McDuff’s “Oblighetto,” a classic in its own right. Having come off of a 24-hour Jimmy Smith diet, I heard McDuff with different ears. It’s not that McDuff had stolen from Smith. That’s not what I was seeing. Instead, I visualized an entire genealogy of jazz musicians making music that begat the next. For me, it all begins with The Champ.
Words by Paul Pennington