Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Organ in Jazz - Part 2

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“WHILE BILL DAVIS, Doggett, and Jackie  Davis were slowly but irrevocably organizing the bars and grills of America, the whole process was repeated in a new cycle.

A young pianist in Philadelphia, inspired in 1953 by Bill Davis, decided to change over to organ. It took Jimmy Smith a year or two of constant practice to build a technique and style that were as far removed from Bill Davis' as Davis' had been from Waller's. Smith formed a trio in September, 1955, and was heard a few months later on a gig at the Cafe Bohemia in New York City.

If the first exposure to Davis had turned some musicians around, the reaction to Smith had them upside down. Because so many albums have gone over the counter since 1956, and because electronic organs of late have suffered from the overexposure that invariably leads to boredom among the critics, it is difficult to realize just how fantastic Smith sounded and how incredible his command of the instrument was and still remains.

Part of Smith's success lay in his extraordinary selection of stops. Not being an organist I can't go into technical details, but a comparison of his sounds with those of any on records made before 1956 will reveal that Smith had indeed developed new combinations that gave the instrument unheard-of tonal variety and color, greater rhythmic impact, and a broader range of dynamics and moods.

One of Smith's most effective devices was the extensive use of what would normally be called pedal-points, though manual-points would be a more appropriate term. One hand may hold a note or chord while the other embarks on a wild series of eighths or a jagged row of rhythmic punctuations of the kind that have led to the comparison of his lines with the urgency of a Morse code transmission.

The Morse-code analogy having been used to his detriment by some Smith detractors, it is important to point out that the harmonic and melodic value of Smith's work is at least as important and that the open secret of his phenomenal success has been a blend of accomplishments on all four levels —  tonal, rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic.

The number of Smith-inspired organists probably runs into the hundreds. Yet the pattern established by admirers of Bill Davis has been repeated: the original excitement and enthusiasm shown by fellow musicians and critics has abated, to be replaced by a far broader, though less analytical, audience of listeners who, in essence, are rhythm-and-blues fans, night-club or bar-and-grill patrons in search of a little excitement as a background for libation.

The post-Smith artists being too numerous to list in full, space permits only the singling out of a couple others who, in one way or another, have made a meaningful contribution to the history of jazz organ.

Outstanding among these is Shirley Scott, not only because she was the first girl to conquer the instrument, but because her work combines some of the most valuable elements of both the Bill Davis and Smith schools. Her early recordings with Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis in 1958 led critic John Tynan to hail her as "an outstanding jazz organist, modern yet rooted deep in the blues, and with ample technique to implement her wide-ranging imagination." Miss Scott's recordings with her own trio in the last couple of years have confirmed this early impression.

Duke Ellington, George Shearing, and many others who have heard him in Chicago swear by the gifts of Les Strand. Strand made an LP some years ago (no longer available) but has had little exposure in proportion to the degree of ability with which his patrons have credited him.

THE PRESENT STATE of the organ in jazz is anomalous. It is almost the only instrument that has suffered from being associated with a particular school of jazz. The reason for the qualifying "almost" is that just as the organ lately has been identified with rhythm-and-blues, the clarinet has suffered through its almost-exclusively psychological link with the swing era.

There is no logical reason for this situation. The strictly organ-ic quality of the early Waller and Basic efforts ultimately was shown to be replaceable by a harder-swinging, more vital sound. Similarly, there is no need to assume that the rhythm-and-blues funk of the present-day organist flanked by guitar and drums (frequently with a tenor saxophone replacing or supplementing the guitar) represents the last and only context for the organ.

What has been accomplished to date, despite the staggering impression made not so long ago when Jimmy Smith arrived on the scene, is only a small segment of what could and probably will be achieved in due course. There is no reason why all organists should play in the currently accepted styles, no reason why so many organists should be former not-very-successful pianists who took up the instrument for strictly commercial purposes, no reason why the potential of the organ should not be drawn out to its fullest extent through its adoption by musicians in the "new thing" or atonal movement.

Greater overall musicianship — that is to say, complete and correct technical command of the organ's seemingly insuperable difficulties, combined with a thorough harmonic sense and a feeling for the newer movements in contemporary jazz—can lift the organ to a plateau on which it will no longer be rejected by critics as a novelty or condemned as a funk machine.

There is also, it seems, no reason why a conflict should exist between organists and bass players. It would be fascinating to conduct a survey of how many bassists have lost work in the past seven years as a result of the organ craze. (On the other hand, an even larger number of guitarists and tenor saxophonists should be thankful for its arrival, since a tremendous amount of employment was created for them.) The theory seems to be that the bassist's notes at best will merely duplicate or at worst conflict with what the organist's left foot is doing.

If the organist has not developed an adequate pedal technique, it is possible to play the bass notes on the keyboard, though this has the effect of confining the soloist to one hand. On the other hand—or rather on the other foot—if a bass player Is present, it is possible to use the foot pedals in a different way, for punctuations or the bottoms of chords, much the way a tuba is sometimes incorporated nowadays into a band that already has a string bass player to take care of the normal bass role.

The situation concerning the relationship between bassist and organist was brought sharply into focus for some a few months ago during the taping of a Vi Redd album for Atlantic. The LP was cut in two sessions, one in New York, the other in Hollywood. On the first session, Ben Tucker was provided with bass parts by organist Hyman; the bassist seemed perfectly at ease, and the rhythm section benefited from it, On the other date, Leroy Vinnegar was on bass, and the organ was played by a very talented young woman named Jennell Hawkins; but this was a more informal session with little or no written music, and at one point Vinnegar complained of feeling redundant.

The solution was simple: if the organist and bassist understand and follow each other, they can complement rather than interfere.

The future of jazz organ may well lie not only in its use by musicians of the most avant-garde inclinations but also by its incorporation into larger units in which it will not have such an overpowering effect. As the dominant voice in a trio or quartet, it can easily get to be a bore. As a comparatively little fish in a big orchestral pond, it can be used with greater discretion. Even though there was nothing startlingly different in what Richard Holmes played on his LP with the Gerald Wilson Band the album is important just for this reason.

Instead of its present status as a sound that is merely pleasing, or at best stimulating, but without much musical food for serious thought, the organ eventually can develop into one of the major voices in modern jazz.

Musicians will enter the scene who have played organ, and nothing else, from childhood. Serious composers will arise whose ideas have been created and expressed through this extraordinarily capacious medium. Critical apathy or opposition will subside as young organists, quite possibly taking advantage of new models' glissandos and other innovations, begin to show the new directions opening up.

It may not happen in the next couple of years, but there should be a better than 50-50 chance of such developments before another generation rolls around. One need only examine the enormous strides made from Waller to Smith. If all this could happen between the early 1940s and the late 1950s, the big wave of the future may be closer than we think.”


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