JAZZ / Cabaret volunteer: Phil Johnson on Jimmy Smith's mix of funky jazz and cornball humour

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The Independent Online
With his Hammond organ facing the audience square-on, Smith peeped out over it like a preacher at his pulpit or a chat-show host at his desk, dressed like a once flashy TV anchorman grown old in the service. His demeanour mixed up a bit of all three, the occasional mock-serious sermon leading into a series of lame jokes and cornball introductions to the musical interludes. He's 65, he tells us, he's recorded 180 albums, and his hair is all his own.

As a performer, Smith lapsed into a cabaret act years ago, and he is now almost as much a comedian as he is a musician. But happily, the tradition he comes from is less glitzy Las Vegas than funky black lounge. It was hardly going to count as Cafe Royal material in any case. Smith's idea of slick is to divide the audience into two halves and then to get them counting against each other while the band plays a stripper theme and Jimmy takes his jacket off and massages his nipples though his white nylon shirt. That's entertainment, all right.

There was certainly evidence that Smith and his audience had got their wires crossed. At one point he tried to impress by telling us that the rap group US3 were coming to see him, asking us to remind him of their main man's name. Someone shouted out 'Jason Donovan'. Smith didn't get the reference, just as we missed the finer points of his anecdote about an American television commercial. At least when words failed him, he could always play the organ, which he did magnificently, tossing his head back, pumping out phrase after phrase of dirty, howling funk.

The serious-faced band members would suddenly smile indulgently at their master's reverie and begin to take off. You could understand their abandon. There's so much patter that they must be lucky to play for half of the show-time every night. The saxophonist Herman Riley proved himself a real star, huffing and puffing at his tenor to disgorge fountains of pure distilled soul notes and rarely needing more than 16 bars at a time. The guitarist Terry Evans alternates blues- drenched chords with Wes Montgomery-style triple octave runs and even sings a passable 'Georgia'. Jimmy is at pains to assure us in an announcement that the drummer isn't his son, the billed Jimmy Smith Jr.

While Smith Sr will try at every opportunity to sneak a little quote from 'The Sound of Music' or 'The Skye Boating Song', quite incongruously into his solos, he regularly falls back on the most sublime soul-jazz runs, squeezing the beast in the box for all it is worth. He does have a tendency to favour the anodyne, but to see him at full tilt on an up-tempo vamp makes all the showbiz schmaltz and even the running lavatorial jokes almost worthwhile. And for all the faults of the performance, at least it wasn't staid and worthy. It may not be the way he tells them, but Jimmy Smith can still slay them in the aisles.

Jimmy Smith plays the final night of his Dingwalls season tonight, 071-267 1999

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