Organ donor

Jazz byRichard Cook

Few musicians polarise opinion quite as comprehensively as James Os-car Smith, born in 1925 and the main reason why a whole genre of music came into being. There were organists in jazz before Jimmy Smith, but he turned the electric Hammond B-3 from an ice-rink novelty into a legitimate vehicle for keyboard players who wanted something beefier and louder than the piano.

Legend has it - and there are a lot of legends surrounding Smith - that he didn't even touch the Hammond until he was 26, having previously studied the piano. The problem with the organ was its weight, its blowsy sound, its fixed, cloddish attack. Smith made it seem light on its feet. He used the foot pedals to play a roving, nimble bass line. His left hand blocked in the chords, with the notes coming out in what seemed like a growling baritone. His right hand was the decorative top line, the language of bebop thickened by a churchy, testifying undertow. Though there was plenty of subtlety in Smith's playing, it was its churning excitement that people responded to. If bop could be a music of isolating brilliance, Smith gave it a ringside exuberance and panache.

That was a little over 40 years ago, when he made his fabled debut at New York's Smalls' Paradise. Frank Wolff, one of the two bosses of Blue Note Records, went to the club and saw "a man in convulsions" crouched over the keyboard. Blue Note went on to make dozens of albums with Smith, but as fine as many of them are, the records never quite live up to the ferocity the young Smith delivered. A New Sound, A New Star, which in its CD incarnation gathers up his first three albums, remains the clearest picture of the kind of impact Smith must have had. He uses the Hammond almost as much for its noise-making capabilities as anything, varying the stops and packing whatever he can into a performance to make it explode.

These days he doesn't go into convulsions. But he doesn't seem bored by a music that most instrumentalists would have been worn away by long since. He sets the organ up to face the audience and from his position behind it he resembles a landlocked Ahab, never looking at the keys and scowling and grimacing in time with the pulse.

He had long stints with both Blue Note and Verve, where producers set him up with big bands (his snarling workout on Oliver Nelson's arrangement of "Walk on the Wild Side" is unforgettable) and various-sized groups, but though he has often recorded with horns, about the only player who seemed genuinely fraternal with Smith was the guitarist Wes Montgomery.

As a personality he can be famously choleric, although he keeps hidden a much sweeter side. The last time I saw him, in Glasgow last summer, he delivered a peculiar performance. His unremarkable guitarist kept getting long features to himself to give the great man a breather. Just when the music had worked up a nice head of steam, in the middle of one solo the leader barked furiously at the lighting engineer to stop shining spotlights on him. As the music went on, Smith seemed to be literally disappearing into darkness while his sidemen glowed like stars.

Perhaps, in his mid-seventies, he can't be blamed for taking things a little easier, but his London appearance this week is at a smallish venue that is not so far removed from the kind of places in which Smith honed his music. Of the handful of remaining jazz legends, there are even fewer who would deign to play in this environment any more. If he is in a particularly bountiful mood, he might even sing.

Jimmy Smith appears at Camden's Jazz Cafe (0171-916 6060), 15-18 March

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet