Jimmy Smith | Back at the Chicken Shack (April 1960)
Blue Note (USA)
Jazz / Soul Jazz / Hard Bop – 38:02
There are certain instruments which everyone wishes they could play. It may be a regret that you never had the chance to blast on a trumpet or create the gentle tones of the violin. It could be a wish to show off with a little virtuoso piano tinkling or a desire to be surrounded by screaming fans as you pluck a few licks on lead guitar. It may even be that you’re happy to hide in the background, yet confident that you are the backbone of the sound as you beat the percussion. There are many instruments to choose which could propel you on to the stage as you make sweet music. And then there are the more obscure ones – the balalaika, for example, or the theremin. How many children stand before their parents, begging to play the crwth (it’s an ancient stringed instrument from Wales, in case you’re wondering)?
For me, it has always been the banjo; if not a truly bizarre choice, then certainly one which sits slightly left of centre. As I’ve already mentioned, I can play guitar (albeit at a very basic level), so clearly these string instruments hold a fascination to me. My real desire is simply to tell people who ask if I can play anything, no doubt waiting for something mundane, that I am able to knock out a tune that would place me in the midst of characters from Deliverance rather than the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There is a desire to do something which raises an eyebrow. However, I would never dream of turning such an instrument into something which could be called ‘cool’. Yet that is exactly what Jimmy Smith managed when he selected as his instrument of choice the Hammond B-3 electric organ.
As others have pointed out, the organ is not something you would associate with pop music – and certainly not jazz, which seems to cry out for serious instrumentation. But Smith was able to take a maligned music machine and take it a million miles away from the stuffy and cheesy reputation it has acquired. It is a reputation which, sadly still stands today; even in the middle of England, far away from the culture of the United States, I’m still acutely aware of the ‘tune’ (and I use the term in the loosest possible manner) which accompanies baseball games. This is not something which instills confidence. But rather than becoming a model of retro cheese, Smith was able to use the organ to not just bring a sense of early 1960s swing to his sound, but to effectively create a link between the cool jazz of the late 1950s to the soulful melodies being produced by the middle of the following decade. If ever there was a sense of a new sound emerging, then Back at the Chicken Shack is definitely it. It is for a reason that he is referred to as the Father of Acid Jazz.
Jimmy Smith originally learned to play piano, playing in a number of bands before he discovered the Hammond organ in the 1950s. By 1960, he had ten years of honing his skill under his belt. Settling into the studio with guitarist Kenny Burrell, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and drummer Donald Bailey, he set about recording Back at the Chicken Shack. It is certainly true that having three incredibly talented musicians with him was a help in producing such a great album. The four men play tightly, with each one worthy of mention during the album. Each has a chance to shine (Minor Chant is a wonderful example of this – from Turrentine’s grooving harmonics through to the fantastic drum solos of Bailey, the track is one of the standouts). But it is Smith who really comes to the fore, producing some fantastic sounds from the organ that bring out a mix of soul, jazz and blues. His mastery of the instrument is clear from the opening notes of the opening title track.
It would be easy to dismiss this album based on the instrument which its key player uses; my initial reaction before I started listening was, I admit, one of a sinking heart. But this is one of those album which catches your attention within moments of starting and simply does not let go. There may be only five numbers on the entire album (it lasts just 43 minutes), but each one is a classic in its own right. Some albums can be played on a loop without every growing tired or repetitive and Back at the Chicken Shack is one such number. The laid back style of the playing and the gentle sound of the instruments themselves help to produce an album that evokes lazy summer Sunday mornings, sipping cups of coffee, even on a cold winter night. From its rather strange cover (Smith is pictured sitting in front of an actual chicken shed) through to its obscure choice of main instrument, this is an album which transcends its image to become a must listen to piece and one which deserves its place on this list.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Back at the Chicken Shack here:
Next time: Muddy Waters at Newport by Muddy Waters