Each jazz instrument in the '50s had a different set of competitive criteria. Trumpet players were about tension and heat, saxophonists about developing a smooth and swinging sound, and pianists about speed and percussive intensity. As for jazz guitarists, rankings often revolved around the taste of the artists' chord and note choices and who could sound most appealing to the ear. Both of these bars were set by the instrument's own rhythm-keeping role and the need to develop soft, elegant backgrounds while accompanying singers.
One of the finest guitarists of the '50s and the pre-rock '60s was Johnny Smith. Most jazz fans know Smith for his 1952 recording of Moonlight in Vermont, a calming interpretation that included airy obligatos by saxophonist Stan Getz. The recording became something of a hit—its dreamy, sleep-walking approach teasing out the song's melodic beauty while echoing the tranquility of suburbia.
Like Paul Desmond, much of Smith's appeal rested with his ability to play the guitar in the upper register, which is catnip for the ear. Smith also had a way of playing that treated space as sound. He did this largely by allowing chords and notes to ring bell-like and drift into a song's vacant spaces. Smith loved the sound of quiet and marveled at how his ringing notes momentarily hung in that space, suspended in mid-air momentarily.
Smith's finest small-group work of the 1950s and early '60s was for the Roost label. All of it has been compiled in one of Mosaic Records' finest sleeper box sets—The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions. Comprised of eight CDs, the box features Smith's guitar leading some of the most tasteful sidemen and combos of the decade.
Listening to this box from beginning to end is like watching a light snowfall from inside a warm house. Smith's single lines never crowd space but work with silence to let you hear notes from all sides. They also tended to flurry with beauty, some notes going up while others come down. His dancing notes and chords are exquisite.
Many people think of Smith as an easy-listening player, largely as a result of his initial recordings for Roost in 1952. But if this box proves anything, it's that Smith could turn any song into a work of art. Standard after standard here is given Smith's gentle rocking-chair approach, and there's plenty of inventiveness and hard swinging inside each track. There also isn't any filler here. Like Mosaic's The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions, every one of the 178 tracks features Smith at his artful best.
Wait Till You See Her from 1955 is a solo track, giving Smith a chance to show off how he put together pretty chords interrupted occasionally by skittish lines. Smith takes off on 'S Wonderful in 1955 and There's a Small Hotel in 1957, showing off his uptempo bop chops. Angel Eyes from 1957 is easily one of the finest instrumental workings of this saloon song. A 1959 Moonlight in Vermont gives Smith a chance to top himself—and he does. And Smith on Grant Avenue (1958) from Flower Drum Song gives the whimsical show tune a mid-tempo, Shearing-esque touch.
Even into the early '60s, Smith retained this style, though he seems to move down the guitar neck a bit. Misty (1961), Old Folks (1962) and Lil Darlin' (1964) demonstrate a certain maturity, but in the process his chords only grew in size and impact. Fortunately, he still seemed to be strumming the strings with a feather.
This may be the only eight CD box set that sounds like a single album. There are no brain-freeze out-there detours or sticky commercial entries. It's track after track of the same kitten-stroking sound that made Moonlight in Vermont so popular and Smith famous.
Johnny Smith turned 90 in June.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions from Mosaic Records here. Last I checked, this set is running out.
Jazzwax clip: Here's Johnny Smith in August 1953 with Paul Quinichette (ts), Sanford Gold (p), Arnold Fishkin (b) and Don Lamond (d) playing Cherokee...