Jimmy Smith Jazz Soul Blue Note Tray

Jimmy smithThe climb to the top of the jazz organ tree was spectacular and dazzling. In 1955 few who followed jazz knew who he was, but a year later, after producer Alfred Lion, stunned by Smith in concert, signed him to Folders of blue notes, the 30-year-old virtuoso Hammond B3’s name was on every modern jazz fan’s lips. With Blue Note releasing five LPs under the Smith name in quick succession in the year 1956 alone, it was hard to escape the phenomenon that the mustached organ player from Norristown, PA had quickly become.

Blue Note knew they had a unique talent in their hands and naturally wanted to harness its full potential. But unlike Monk Thelonious and Herbie Nicholls, two singular keyboardists whom they had already signed but whose records did not sell well, Smith had enormous commercial appeal and his records – infused with elements of blues and gospel – were quickly devoured, mainly by a hungry African-American audience.

Order Jimmy Smith’s Cooking at home vinyl here.

Smith’s rise to fame continued unabated in 1957, when he released seven amazing LPs in a frenzied flurry of recording activity. Those who tried to keep up with his prolific production would have breathed a little easier in 1958 when the organist’s productivity started to slow – but only a little; he released three more LPs that year, including the classic live album Groovin ‘in the paradise of the little ones. At the time he recorded Cooking at home by the summer of 1959, Blue Note had reduced the number of its releases, perhaps fearing that they would saturate the market. But at that point, Smith didn’t need to prove anything – he was a true star whose contagious soul-jazz records were by far the best-selling LPs in Blue Note’s catalog.

The band and the recording

His sixteenth LP in just three years, Cooking at home followed in the wake of The Sermon!, released earlier in 1959. Only guitarist from Detroit, the talented Kenny Burrell – who also had a Blue Note contract – survived this session. Saxophonist Percy France – an independent tenor from Manhattan whose experience included playing with organist Bill Doggett in the first half of the 1950s – as well as Smith’s regular drummer Donald Bailey joined him. There was no bassist on the session, of course, as Smith played the bass notes of the music on the pedals of his Hammond organ.

Most of Blue Note’s albums were cut into a single three-hour session, but Cooking at home was a rare exception; a mix of two studio dates, May and June 1959. All seven tracks were recorded at producer Alfred Lion’s preferred recording location, Van Gelder Workshop at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; a state-of-the-art facility owned and operated by legendary sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder who was instrumental in giving Blue Note Records its distinctive sound. (He was also considered the first man to bring proper audio expertise to jazz recording sessions and to give musical instruments a realistic sound).

For those familiar with Smith’s previous studio recordings, what is striking about Cooking at home is that it is about a much more thoughtful and relaxed disc, privileging the quivering grooves to the usual dazzling pyrotechnics of the organist. The opening cup, a succulent take of soul-jazz on Mom RaineyThe ‘See See Rider’ is defined by organ licks so fatty you can almost hear the grease leaking out. This sets the tone for the rest of the album; although often performed as an upbeat blues shuffle by other performers, Smith slowed down the song to a languid tempo, allowing space and time for all of the soloists to shine.

Elsewhere, Smith and Burrell each contribute a few songs alongside two notable covers; Ray Charles ‘1955 R&B hit “I Got A Woman” and “Motorin’ Along” by organist Jimmy McGriff, both of which are superbly reworked with a sense of church renewal.

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The album cover

Cooking at homeThe eye-catching front cover of is also worth mentioning. By 1960, when the album came out, Blue Note’s LPs had become renowned for their stylized illustrations, juxtaposing eye-catching typography with cropped black-and-white photos of the musicians. Until then, the label rarely used color photos of its artists, which is why Francois WolffSo distinctive is the vivid photo of Smith taken outside a soul food restaurant in Harlem called Kate’s Home Cooking. The decision to photograph Smith there was not arbitrary. the famous Apollon Theater. (Apparently it was a magnet for musicians and performers who often gathered there after shows).

Jimmy Smith’s Legacy Cooking at home

Cooking at home showed Smith maturing as an artist; toning down the flash solos on which he had built his fame and instead, heightening the sense of touching expression in his music. Significantly, it came out at a time when jazz was beginning to experience an existential crisis. Ornette Coleman’s free jazz manifesto The shape of jazz to come had just come out and sent seismic shockwaves through the jazz world, causing the scene to split into factions. But while some jazz musicians created openly cerebral music, Smith wanted to keep his music grounded and make it accessible to audiences who just wanted to have a good time; and with Cooking at home, he skillfully combined blues and gospel ingredients with a hard bop soup to create a delicious soul-jazz platter that “still tastes great today.”

Listen to Jimmy Smith Cooking at home now.

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