Midnight Special

Jimmy Smith

Blue Note, 1961


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Once a second taste of the immortal pairing of Les McCann and Eddie Harris set me off in search of further examples of soul jazz, it didn’t take long to stumble across Jimmy Smith (and that’s what a jazz amateur like me does with major jazz figures—stumbles across them like a clown tripping over his own shoes).

An organist and bandleader with incredible feel and soulfulness to his playing, Smith issued a number of highly-regarded albums during his golden era of mid ’50s through mid-’60s, along with some notably funkier outings in the ’70s. Midnight Special attracted my attention as a starting point for exploring Smith’s catalogue in part because it matches Smith with the fantastic Stanley Turrentine on tenor sax, along with the superb Kenney Burrell on guitar and Donald Bailey on drums.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The first impression for me a few minutes into the opening title track was that this is the original chill-out music—soft and cool and a little bit smoky, designed to mellow you out and make you smile. In particular, the steady interplay between Smith and Turrentine—at that point on the cusp of launching a successful career as a bandleader—is magical. “Midnight Special” smolders along for nearly 10 minutes, steady, enjoyable background music with a quartet of exceptional players taking their turns soloing.

Turrentine’s “A Subtle One” follows, a spacious, at times spectacular soundscape that goes on and on as Smith and Turrentine dance with each other over delicious, silky grooves, filling every moment with moody dynamics. “Jumpin’ The Blues” is where my initial impression started to change, as a little bit of flash comes into the picture when Smith unleashes a smoking solo in the third minute as the rhythm section runs double-time underneath. Burrell takes his turn around 3:45, and then it’s Stanley’s time to shine again.

The place where Smith’s chill-out music becomes soul jazz is in the grooves and the gospel influences apparent in his playing. There’s a soul / r&b feel to the rhythm section and Smith’s consistently expressive playing digs deep, opting for a steady urgency and passion over flash or speed. Turrentine serves as the perfect foil, supplying more of the jazz side of the equation with his liquid phrasing and swerving solos. 

“Why Was I Born” arrives as a slow, bluesy number, featuring Turrentine with some alternately melancholy and playful phrases. Here Jimmy mostly provides atmosphere, and Burrell stays in the background, leaving just sax, organ and brushes to do the work. The album closes with a Count Basie number (“One O’Clock Jump”) that swings like anything, providing a rich backdrop for Turrentine and Burrell to solo (there’s definitely a bass guitar playing under Burrell’s solo, so either the man has four hands or there’s an uncredited player).

Midnight Special is a terrific introduction to the talents of Jimmy Smith, as well as a tasty example of what happens when you put four talents of the caliber of Smith, Turrentine, Burrell and Bailey in a room and just let them play. Sweet, sweet stuff, and I’ll be back for more.

Rating: A-

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© 2014 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Blue Note, and is used for informational purposes only.