Back At The Chicken Shack

Jimmy Smith

Blue Note, 1963

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


A key part of my ongoing jazz education has been identifying guides to help me along my path.

Jazz organist and bandleader Jimmy Smith is someone I had never heard of a decade ago, but whose reputation convinced me to try out one of his albums—Midnight Special—in part because it featured a player I was familiar with, the terrific saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. I enjoyed Midnight Special a lot—Smith was a gifted and generous bandleader and the most highly regarded organist of his era of jazz—but Turrentine was the guide who led me to him.

After Smith’s brief run with Turrentine—then on the cusp of breaking out as a bandleader in his own right—he went on to match skills with a series of A-list jazz players, including the great Wes Montgomery; their Dynamic Duo album became another favorite stop along my jazz journey.

The next step in my investigation into Smith’s discography, Back At The Chicken Shack, is comprised of a second set of tracks recorded during the same 1960 session that produced my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Midnight Special, and featuring the identical lineup of Smith, Turrentine, Kenny Burrell on guitar and Donald Bailey on drums. Smith and Turrentine would record one more album together—1963’s Prayer Meetin’—before parting ways, joining forces again only later in both men’s notable careers.

The opening title track, a Smith composition, finds the quartet mining an easy, rolling groove for a series of solos, with the conversation between Smith’s Hammond B-3 and Turrentine’s tenor sax especially sweet and savory. The Oscar Hammerstein nugget “When I Grow Too Old To Dream” feels like an old swing ballad, with Bailey sticking to brushes as Turrentine leads the way, with Smith offsetting his flights with a rhythmic foundation. Turrentine’s “Minor Chant” features him on a minor-key sequence that feels rather like—you guessed it—a chant, a steady pulse of notes that each of the players finds creative ways to counterpoint.

The Smith-penned “Messy Bessie”—clocking in at a luxurious 12:27—finds him taking the lead on a blues-inflected opening chorus before handing the baton to Turrentine. Burrell comes in next with a rippling solo that oozes sophistication, and then it’s Smith’s turn to strut his stuff again, which he emphatically does. The 2007 remaster of this album adds a cover of the old standard “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” taken from the same session though not issued until it was featured on a 1979 Blue Note collection. Turrentine, Burrell and Smith each take a moment in the spotlight on this gently swinging, rather reverent cover.

The thing about jazz is, though, the individual tracks tend to stand out less than the overall vibe. The vibe is what a good jazz album is about, that process of discovering whether that particular combination of players might achieve something greater than the sum of its parts. So I can tell you that I enjoyed every single cut on Back At The Chicken Shack, but truthfully what I got out of the listening experience had little to do with individual tracks; my enjoyment of this album was more about just hearing Smith and Turrentine joust with each other, both sounding challenged and energized and cool as cucumbers on ice. 

It’s worth noting as well that putting great players together does not guarantee a great result; any number of things can go sideways. But when the players are superb and the vibe is right, the result can be something akin to magic, which is what Jimmy Smith and Stanley Turrentine (and Kenny Burrell and Donald Bailey) deliver with Back At The Chicken Shack.

Until next time: class dismissed.

Rating: A-

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