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

October 30, 2017

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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