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The Incredible Jimmy Smith - “Back at the Chicken Shack” (1963) review

The Incredible Jimmy Smith - Back at the Chicken Shack (Blue Note Records, 1963)

While the album cover may toss up some pastoral semblance of farm life, this 1963 classic couldn’t be further from any country flare. For a few tell-tale signs, I suggest you take a closer look at Jimmy Smith here and all his supple glory. See that silky red getup? How about those dark khakis or the slick olive green socks? If anything, those loafers oh-so-discretely snuggled into the grass should lay down a few hints for what to expect in Jimmy-territory. The sound here belongs to cavernous city bars, to that tipsy Friday night, to several dozen sweaty and gyrating socialites crammed into a rapidly shrinking studio apartment.

As one of the kings of the Hammond organ, Smith is bewitching. Whole worlds blossom under his fingers in the title track. The percussion and bass line? Basic. The music comes alive as Smith begins dancing in and out of blues progressions and into crazed soloing, as if his notions of tonality begin to spill into one another like overflowing wine glasses. And yet the spectrum of harmonies he toys with couldn’t be a more familiar. All you want is to give that popsicle another lick and slide back into your armchair.

At the 3:30-marker, Kenny Burrell takes center stage with his humble 6-string plucking, pumping out a placid call and response between him and the organ. A minute and a half later, Stanley Turrentine cracks the whip with tenor sax. The notes arch like fireworks, like empty beer bottles rupturing against a wall. We sink deeper, enveloped in the clammy grasp of a thousand stars. Pillars of suede armed with black lights shoot up around us, smoke girdles our extremities. We are a slave to the bluesy brigade, pulsating and celestial.

But where is the Chicken Shack? What is the Chicken Shack?

What transcendental love notes are Smith and that rooster slipping back and forth? I imagine the release’s four tracks must be a dose of those sweet nothings. Maybe the record’s title and cover aren’t so reflective of the music’s seductive nightclub sway, but rather harken to the sound’s origins. While I do not claim to be a Jimmy Smith pundit, the Chicken Shack feels to me to be an ideological or aesthetic pronouncement. Amidst the Dalmatian, chicken wire, and perfectly framed shrubbery I sense implications of bohemia. Smith, intently situated within his environment, exercises his agency with a kind of grace and grandiose prowess—be it the romantic simplicity of life on a ranch, or his trio of bandmates.

But be warned, nothing about this album posits snobbery. The Incredible Jimmy Smith plays for the proles, for the farmhands. Any aristocracy is left in the dust as we slither into “When I Grow Too Old To Dream,” a mushier track than its predecessor but nonetheless alluring. Turrentine is back in our faces singing sweetly with his brass. The organ simply clears the path before him, laying the groundwork for some sublime modal parading.

Onto “Minor Chant” and we’re back on the street, a cramp in our left thigh, hailing a cab, and loving every second of it. Turrentine is again handed the spotlight, a move that would ultimately launch the saxophonist’s career, and we’re left engrossed by his twiddling hands. But the groove here is more complex. He oscillates between those recognizable harmonious rustles and particular dips into subtle dissonance. It may be the bending of a note or a small aside of tension, but he seems to leave it negligibly on the counter for those attentive enough to spot.

At the halfway mark of the track Smith skates back into our lap—quite literally seeming to roll around on the keys—and without much patience for the tense or rigid. His genius picks up the melody and plops it on a platter of sugary delights, if only for a few moments. Soon drummer Donald Bailey makes his inaugural solo, playing off Turrentine’s flashes of color. Excitement from the snare climbs, teases, but ends before I’ve had my fill.

To bookend the record, the group leaves us with 12 minutes of nectar. “Messy Bessie” begins as a fusion of the first two songs, with Smith laying down his typical sashay at a reduced tempo. I feel my head tipping and begin to look towards the door when, at the 54-second mark, the tenor sax circles back for a victory lap. Suddenly there is dimension, intricacy. As the sine waves unfold I watch a flat box turn to a cube, then a tesseract. Turrentine launches into a metaphysical assault. You can even hear him occasionally lean away from the mic, perhaps careening backward in religious bliss.

From the unrivaled hollering we segue into a lulling electricity from Burrell. The guitarist supplies a sensitive delivery. He takes his time making his way down the neck of the instrument and then back up, only to be dominated by Smith and his rambunctious tremolo. Unfortunately, it’s clear who is given prime real estate here.

“Messy Bessie” is left to gloat atop its kingdom (or rather, its Shack) of enthralling and sophisticated cadence as Turrentine and Smith march us down the red carpet and onto the next chapter. Just as tenderly as it arrives, it saunters off. If only this marvelous Chicken Shack would all come rushing back.

But wait.

- Gabe Kahan
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