Album Liner Notes:
Several years ago, one of my friends in uptown New York told me to make a point of hearing the group that was then at Minton’s. When I arrived there in due course, Teddy Hill was standing around with a benign expression that augured well.
I was familiar with guitarist George Benson from his records with Brother Jack McDuff, and he sounded even better as leader of his own quartet in the freedom that position ensured. But I was also very much impressed by his organist, Lonnie Smith. „When I thought about organ players,“ George told me later, explaining how he got his group together, „Lonnie came into my mind because he can swing. When I called him he was working w th a rhythm-and-blues group, but he decided to take a chance with me, although I had nothing lined up.“
I thought Lonnie had to be celebrating some great occasion that night, or had found some elixir outclassing those behind the bar on Teddy Hill’s well-stocked shelves. He exuded happiness, and he was as energetic as he was enthusiastic. Afterwards, of course, I discovered there was nothing unusual about his performance. It was to his own abandoned pattern, the Lonnie Smith Ordinary that always sounds like the Lonnie Smith Special.
They had a good drummer there, and a really formidable musician on the baritone saxophone, Ronnie Cuber, who plays so rewardingly on this record, too. He would take big, bustling solos, and work away in the ensemble, nudging the others along with robust, vehement phrases. There was, in fact, a rare four-way thing going between these men, each protruding and stimulating the others into more vigorous and imaginative flights. The instrumentation was new, but the spirit of collective improvisation, and the kind of cumulative rhythmic momentum they achieved were as old as jazz itself.
Lonnie Smith’s drive, as the album title recognizes, is the cardinal factor in the five performances that compose this set. A lot of adjectives and likenesses come to mind, but as always in attempts to describe the intangibles of music, they lack precision. They drive, after all, from subjective impressions, and to say that Lonnie plays with furious energy, or that he always manages to set the pot boiling—and keep it boiling—is not necessary to describe the effect of the music on the record buyer. Nevertheless, what can be said without fear of contradiction is that his playing is synonymous with excitement. You just cannot stand by, cool and detached, for long. The music pulls you in headlong, sets you whirling…why, just as though you were in a whirlpool of sound!
A remarkable characteristic of the organ groups, at a time when jazz has generally lost its sense of direction, is their rhythmic strength and vitality. Unlike most of the rock, pseudo-jazz, or jazz-rock groups, they are not content with a heavy, ponderous beat. Note what happens on Spinning Wheel, a number made famous by Blood, Sweat and Tears, when Lonnie lakes off on his solo; note how aerially, how effortlessly he swings.
The choice of material is interesting in itself. Spinning Wheel is sandwiched between Twenty Five Miles (on which the leader elects to sing and Dave Hubbard’s Coltrane-like tenor is introduced) and Seven Steps To Heaven, a Miles Davis tar of 1963. The difference of approach on this last is more than a matter of the difference between organ and trumpet, and the performance is notable for the group’s fresh insights on a number that Miles and Victor Feldman jointly composed.
On the second side, Lonnie’s own hypnotic original, Psychedelic Pi, is presented with considerable humor, and the two saxophones are used very effectively in the riffing behind Larry McGee’s excellent guitar work. Here is another example of how the organ groups have contributed to azz. Ever since the days of Wild Bill Davis with Bill Jennings, and Bill Doggett with Billy Butler, they have constantly brought admirable guitarists to the attention of the public. McGee’s playing here is impressively assured and inventive.
Finally, there is a version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? that is even longer—by some sixty-five seconds—than that made by Jimmy Smith in 1964. No doubt Lonnie had heard the earlier one, and it may well have fired his imagination. But he is no imitator and this is almost totally different in tempo and treatment, his playing over stop-time being resourceful and clearly spontaneous. Joe Dukes, who put the whole record into a groove with his introduction to Twenty Five Miles, calls the meeting to order after the stop-time and takes the band out, driving. His solo throughout is vital to the whole enterprise and, as further reference to his records with Jack McDuff will show, Joe Dukes is a drummer almost impossible to top in the organ field. Put him with Lonnie Smith, and you have an infallible combination for the production of music which Drives.
STANLEY DANCE 1970