Jimmy Smith helped redefine the vocabulary of jazz organ during the hard bop/soul jazz era. With his heavily blues and gospel based approach,his use of the Leslie speaker on his Hammond B-3 organ became defined by distinct clicking tones between each key stroke. This idea of instrumental technique combined with personal finger touch has made Smith’s sound extremely influential among jazz style organists for the remainder of the 20th century. And with bands such as England’s James Taylor Quartet utilizing this approach on the Hammond organ, Smith is along with Roy Ayers one of the main instrumental pioneers of the 1990’s acid jazz sound.
As of today,it’s been five days since Earth Wind & Fire bandleader Maurice White passed away. When I think about it,Maurice and Jimmy Smith were both members of America’s Silent Generation-only on earlier and later ends of it. During the mid 1970’s,Smith’s musical style made yet another transition. This one towards a hard funk oriented sound. Because of his blues roots and love of placing his organ soloing in the context of heavy rhythm,the funk genre was an ideal for Smith to deal with during the late 70’s. Recording both bop and funk for the Mercury label at the time,Smith and Maurice White’s music dovetailed beautifully in 1978 when Smith interpreted the EWF number “Serpentine Fire”.
The lightly fan faring intro of percussionist Stephanie Spruill introduces this groove,over which Smith plays a smooth version of the songs initial melody on his B-3. John Phillips tenor sax and and Nolan Smith’s trumpet play the role of a stripped back Phenix Horns going into Abraham Laboriel’s bass line-itself similar to the bluesy melodic line of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”. On the central refrains,Smith plays the chords of the melody very much in classic bop style-with later variations showcasing call and response dialog with the two horns. On the choral links with the scaled up horns,Smith accompanies his own organ with a beautiful round Moog synthesizer bass tone.
Of course EWF had a strong jazz basis at the very core of their sound. When jazz soloists began covering their huge hits during the 70’s,that element really came out a lot more. Jimmy Smith’s take on “Serpentine Fire” from his 1978 album Unfinished Business is a superb example. Not only is he rounding heavily on his bop approach of playing chords, but on many of his solos he’s hammering on the organ in a very aggressively rhythmic sustain. The rhythmic sound of the song is a bit smaller,more live oriented than studiocentric. Of course that allows for Smith’s soloing to take center stage. It also allows for his to be a fantastically funky re-imagining of an Earth Wind & Fire classic.