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JAZZ REVIEW

With Smith at the Keyboard, the Fun Returns to Jazz Sets

February 23, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As he so often does, Jimmy Smith came up with a potent reminder Tuesday night at Catalina Bar & Grill of elements too often missing from many jazz sets:

Entertainment. Having fun. Grooving with the beat.

Seated directly in the middle of the stage, facing the audience with his Hammond organ at his fingertips and his band members on both sides, Smith was the classic groovemaster, kicking out the big blocks of sound and surging rhythms that have always been his stock in trade.

It is rare, at this point in the history of jazz, to be able to hear a seminal artist--one who has defined an essential jazz style--in action. But Smith, at 70, not only created the blues-based, soul-driven, jazz-enlightened approach to organ playing still employed by keyboardists young and old, he continues to be its master. Playing everything from late-night blues to Sonny Rollins' sunny "St. Thomas," his remarkable, hard-swinging articulation generated foot-tapping, body-moving rhythms in almost every note he touched.

Equally important, Smith sees a performance as something more than a sequence of playing a tune, running off a string of improvisations, then playing the tune again. His program included vocals by guitarist Terry Evans (singing a soulful rendering of "Georgia on My Mind") and drummer Jimmy Jackson (doing "Please Save Your Love for Me").

At one point, saxophonist Herman Riley (playing alto flute) and Evans were left alone on stage to perform a thoughtful version of "Nature Boy." And Jackson's lengthy drum solo--in which he actually persuaded the spirited overflow crowd to sing along with him--was an example of percussion work as the exploration of tone and rhythm rather than the familiar show-off sequence of noisy bombastics.

Entertaining? Yes. But not lacking in musicality, imagination or creativity. Smith and his sterling quartet this week are offering one of the most bountiful of jazz opportunities, the chance to experience some provocative, inventive playing in a setting of irrepressible rhythmic energy.

* Jimmy Smith Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $16 cover tonight and Saturday, $13 cover Sunday, with two-drink minimum. Smith performs two shows nightly, at 8:30 and 10:30.

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