Friday, January 8, 2016

Stuff Smith and Oscar Peterson, 1957

Though perhaps he may not be as well remembered today as fellow violinists Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli, the great Stuff Smith is one of the most exciting jazzmen to ever pick up a violin. Born in Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1909, Smith was playing the instrument by age 9 in a band led by his father. In the 1920s he joined the Alphonse Trent orchestra, a territory band that operated mostly in the Texas area, and by the advent of the Swing Era, Smith had moved to New York City, where he became extremely popular with the crowds that gathered at the Onyx Club, mostly made up of musicians. His flawless sense of swing, which he claimed to have learned from none other than Louis Armstrong, soon made him one of the foremost swing violinists, and he was among the very first jazzmen to play electric violin. Smith made his first recordings around 1928, and several of them (particularly "I'Se a-Muggin'," which also features his own infectious vocals) became popular, but he didn't actually record too many albums as a leader. One of his most memorable LPs was cut in 1957 and reissued on CD a few years ago as Stuff Smith & Oscar Peterson (Poll Winners) with three extra tracks added to the six on the original album.

The quartet that accompanies Smith on the two sessions that were needed to complete the album (held in Los Angeles in March 1957) is stellar: Oscar Peterson on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Alvin Stoller on drums. Everyone involved seems to be at ease, with all participants trading excellent solos, although Smith, Peterson, and Kessel are featured more prominently than the rest. In fact, Smith and Kessel interact seamlessly throughout both sessions, as we can clearly hear on "Soft Winds." Popular standards such as "It Don't Mean a Thing," "I Know That You Know," and "Heat Wave" are perfect vehicles to showcase Smith's virtuosity on the violin, always ably supported by Kessel, Peterson, and the rhythm section. On Duke Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," Smith proves that his style is deeply rooted in the blues, and "In a Mellow Tone" offers a good opportunity for everyone to turn in highly inspired solos. Although Smith is known for his swinging style, the extended version of "Body and Soul" shows that he can also be sensitive and inspiring when it comes to ballads. There are even two Smith originals, "Desert Sands" and "Time and Again," that remind us that he was also very talented as a composer. This very recommendable CD also includes two tunes  ("Calypso" and "I Wrote My Song") from a February 1957 date that finds Smith in a similar mood in the company of pianist Carl Perkins, bassist Red Callender, and drummer Oscar Bradley. Writing in Down Beat about this album in 1957, critic Leonard Feather said that "there is no human being on earth or in heaven who can outswing Stuff Smith." Anyone who listens to these wonderful recordings will undoubtedly agree.

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