It seems like the entire guitar community has been buzzing about this new Mosaic Johnny Smith Box Set that has finally been released. As an admirer of Johnny for many years, I know these recordings extremely well. I have played many of the solos, introduced students to his music, and listened not only as a guitarist/musician, but also for the pure enjoyment. The music on these CD's is truly amazing. Even if you're familiar with Johnny's work, you're in for a treat. I was a bit concerned at first that the transfer of these records to CD would be a bit cold-sounding, as is often the case; wrong! Mosaic has done a masterful job of keeping Johnny's warm and appealing sound intact. When I played the first CD, I was overjoyed to hear these tracks without the pops and minor scratches that most records usually have. The fidelity is excellent. Especially on "S'Wonderful", "Stranger in Paradise", and "Our Love Is Here to Stay". The old ten-inch record I have has a rather poor sound. It is hard to believe these tracks were recorded from 1952 - 1954. They sound as fresh as anything today.
If you are not familiar with Johnny's work, you are in for a double treat! In today's musical world, there is so much emphasis on chops and speed. Listen to how Johnny uses his awesome technique and maintains sensitivity, emotion, and a sound that's timeless.
Disc 1 and Disc II (up to track 12) are made up of tracks originally released as singles that eventually became the 10' albums, In a Sentimental Mood, In a Mellow Mood, and Jazz at NBC (Vol. 1 and 2). They were later again re-issued as Moods, and Moonlight in Vermont minus several tracks. Moonlight in Vermont has been available on CD for a while, but here are all the tracks on one CD. This is the first time guitarists heard closed voicings that seemed impossible to play before. (On the guitar, closed or close voicings require great stretches that most guitarists have a heck of a time playing. On the piano, it's easy!) "Moonlight", "Tenderly", "I'll be Around" and "Stars Fell on Alabama" are great examples of this incredible sound. "Cherokee", Tabu, and Johnny's own "Jaguar", show him at his swinging best. CD #1 tracks 21-24 and CD#2 1-12 were part of the "Moods" session. Here's the first time you hear Johnny's unique use of thirds. Especially interesting is "What's New", "I'll Remember April", and "Sophisticated Lady". The intro to "Lady" is amazing! "Lover Man" and "What's New" have uncanny (even by today's standards) arpeggio playing which is another Johnny Smith trademark. These early recordings are very significant and signaled the beginning of a very special musician. The playing on these records is so different from Johnny's contemporaries that it's impossible to categorize. The rest of Disc Two (tracks 13-24) is from Johnny Smith Plays Jimmy Van Heusen, which in reality is Johnny's first LP. Johnny plays with such taste and love of the melody, you almost feel as if he wrote the songs! (Especially haunting are his renditions of "Imagination","Nancy"and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams".)
Disc III features Johnny Smith Quartet and The New Johnny Smith Quartet records. I'm not sure why Mosaic called it Featuring solos by the Johnny Smith Quartet because the original LP just says Johnny Smith Quartet. If you haven't heard it, wait until you hear "Wait Till You See Her" for an incredible display of technique and great humor. On "Un Poco Loco", Johnny is featured at his swinging and almost avant-garde best. Listen to "Easy Living" for another classic rendition. The New Quartet features the vibraphone of Johnny Rae. The arrangements and use of vibes and guitar is wonderful! There is plenty of blowing on this date such as "Pawn Ticket", "S'Wonderful", "Blue Lights", "Bags Groove" and Johnny's own "Samba" This is the first recorded version of "Black is the Color".
Disc IV has the Foursome recordings Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Many guitarists feel these are their favorite Johnny Smith records. Who's to argue? They are incredible! The three solo pieces on Vol1, "The Maid with the Flaxen Hair", "The Boy Next Door", and "Autumn Nocturne", are definitive versions of these classics. Especially "The Boy Next Door" as Johnny goes for it all: amazing runs, harmonic inventions, humor, and again, an un-believable sound. Johnny's re-tuning of the low "E" to a "D" gave the guitar a fuller and fatter sound. On the original record, Johnny wrote the liner notes and I quote, "Let me make known the fact that, owing to the string noises of the guitar, the solos on this and other albums were recorded with the guitar connected directly into the recording console, thus eliminating the majority of these extraneous sounds. However these sounds in "live" performance are usually absorbed in the clinking of glasses, the conversations of customers, and are, I hope, overlooked in concert halls." Johnny takes off on one of my favorite tracks of all time: "Tickle Toe". If there was any doubt of his swinging single lines, this will make a believer of anyone. There were more than a few times when I have had guitarists at my home and Johnny Smith's name was mentioned. Some did not really know his playing that well, but knew of his great chord work. I would always play "Tickle Toe" and every time they'd turn to me in shock. Volume 2 of Foursome features more single line soloing than is usual for Johnny. Tracks such as, "There's a Small Hotel", "Tea for Two", "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You"," Love For Sale" and "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart", where Johnny really stretches out. There are of course many gems here such as, "East Of the Sun" and "Lover". Everyone will have his or her favorite. When I edited Steve Silverman's Johnny Smith Guitar Solos, I learned these solos very well. What a pleasure to hear them so clearly on CD.
Johnny has always had a passion for classical music and you can hear that through out the entire set. His ability to magically play two lines at once (not unlike Chuck Wayne and George Van Eps) is evident in his own tune "Walk Don't Run". Originally recorded in 1953, it became a pop hit by the Ventures in the 60"s. Disc V has Flower Drum Song and Easy Listening. Johnny has mentioned that Flower Drum Song was his favorite of that period. The spirit of that hit show is captured here in one of Johnny's most understated yet captivating performances. To understand this particular recording, you sort of have to know the show. For the most part, jazz musicians haven't played these tunes all that often. Here's the funny thing about Johnny, he has said that he doesn't think of himself as a jazz musician. I don't know what to make of that except to say it doesn't make any difference. To quote Shirley Hoskins Collins on the liner notes of the Moods record - "If this is jazz, then I like it! He has therefore done something to break down some of the superficial prejudices people have about this music. (For as one would like to think otherwise, much of the general public still considers jazz as something loud and blary".) These notes are pretty amazing especially since they're from 1953. Johnny returns with his trio on Easy Listening. What a fabulous session this was! He is in fine form with his two lines, closed harmony, incredible use of thirds, inner voices, 3 octave arpeggios, sustaining chords, contrary motion, and a depth of feeling that's so refreshing. There are so many great tracks here but I have to mention "When I Fall in Love", "The Nearness Of You", "You Don't Know What Love is", and "Isn't it Romantic" as particularly lovely ballads. "Black Is the Color" is recorded here for the 2nd time and it's my personal favorite. Listen to how Johnny plays "Scarlet Ribbons" with his perfect harmonics and a classical guitar feel, another Smith trademark. This record was pretty hard to find for awhile, but here it is for all to enjoy." Black is the Color" and "The Maid with the Flaxen Hair" is the beginning of his recordings of classical pieces which culminated in the Legends CD on Concord. Many guitarists have played "The Maid" and "Black" and are very proud of the fact that they can perform them. (Myself included).
Discs VI have two of my personal favorites as I can tell you I was quite moved by these records. Since they were the first I had ever heard, I immediately went back and checked out everything before and after and I'm still listening! Every track on Favorites seems to draw you right in! The famous 1st voicing of "Moonlight In Vermont" tells you this is going to be something special. Essentially the same chord solo as the Moonlight In Vermont record, it features an imaginative single line solo. "My One and Only Love" is perfect with Johnny's love of the melody so apparent. The Van Heusen medley is truly inspiring with much contrary motion. Especially intriguing is the bridge section to" Polka Dots". This almost sounds layered with the two lines so defined. My personal favorite is "Everything Happens To Me". This is played with so much feeling and insight, I feel like it's the only way to play this great Matt Dennis song. The key change at the end is very moving. This is a pretty low-key recording with the exception of "Satin Doll", Blues Back Stage", and the newly added "Vilia". To his fans, this is classic Smith. For new listeners, this may take some getting used to but believe me it's worth it! Getting back to "Vilia," I wonder why it was left off the original record. It's great to hear these newly discovered tracks, which Mosaic has thankfully added. Designed For You starts with two ballads, "Fools Rush In" and "I Remember Clifford" which is one of Johnny's most memorable performances. Ingenious use of thirds, contrary motion, and 3-octave arpeggios, this track has it all! With the humorous "Lady is a Tramp" and the swinging "There Will Never Be Another You", he really gets things going. I imagine anyone who has heard Johnny Smith play will admit to trying to play his amazing version of 'My Romance" with all the open strings, sliding chords, and closed harmony. What an ingenious thought out solo this is! There are many gems on Designed For You. This was also a very difficult record to find for a long time and I know many of my friends had scoured the used record stores occasionally finding one and paying top dollar for it. This record ends the 1950s output of Johnny as he enters the 60s with four more albums for Roost. (Read the producer's notes at the end of the booklet for the other Roost recordings not included here.)
Johnny Smith Plus the Trio and The Sound of the Johnny Smith Guitar on disc VII has some typically great Smith touches. Plus the Trio features Bob Panecoast, George Roumanis, and Mousey Alexander with whom Johnny has recorded with for years. Great standards played with lovely arrangements and wonderful interplay. Johnny seems to be improvising more on this record as compared to much of his earlier work. Still the same great sound as ever and perfect intonation. Bob Pancoast plays extraordinary with much taste and musicianship and you have to love Mousey on "Un Poco Loco". George Roumanis contributes to the mix and adds his own clever tune, 'Hippo. 'The Sound of the Johnny Smith Guitar has Hank Jones, George Duvivier, and Ed Shaughnessey joining Johnny for a very satisfying session. Four great players working as one. Some of Johnny's single line solos sound almost country (ala Hank Garland) especially on "This Can't Be Love". The high level of enjoyment between the four artists is very evident. . Hank Jones in particular plays remarkably swinging and constructed solos and his comping is so right. My personal favorite on this record is "As Long As There's Music". There is a slightly different approach from Johnny on these two records. After a listen or two I think you'll agree they are as memorable and endearing as anything before.
The Man With the Blue Guitar on disc VIII features flawless solo work. You might call this a fore- runner to the Legends CD. Most of the tunes here were recorded earlier but it's still great to hear them again. The problem is there's lot of hiss on this disc, which is too bad because it's really distracting. No jazz at all on this record but Johnny's back with a lot more stretching out on Reminiscing. I must admit it not being one of my favorite records mostly because of the poor sound quality. Listening to it on CD, I enjoyed it much more. There are many great spots like "There'll Be Other Times", a lovely Marian McPartland ballad with Johnny positively sounding like Sabicas! Johnny's own "Satin's Doll" (It's entitled "Satan's Doll" on the Art Van Damme Columbia release "A Perfect Match") is a clever and fun song. "I'm Old Fashioned" is another inventive rendition of a great standard. This was re-recorded on the Legends CD. The blues tune "Fitz" has Johnny explode with some beautiful "jazz" lines.
There is so much here on this boxed set it would take years to digest it all. A body of work over ten years and more than 16 records. Why is Johnny Smith's music so important? My feeling is that much of today's music is in disarray with a lot of confusion and a slow disintegration of the standard song repertoire. Johnny Smith has always been a keen interpreter of standards and brings to them his own magical point of view. These gorgeous tunes need to be re-discovered by some of the younger players and no one interprets them better than Johnny Smith. Everything in this boxed set won't appeal to everyone, of course. We are fortunate though, to be able to listen to all of this great music without having to search for expensive, and most likely, scratchy original copies of the albums. One of the attractive things about these records is the cover designs -real 1950's artwork. It's a shame Mosaic couldn't include some thumbnails of these covers. If you ever get a chance, I think you'll really enjoy seeing them. Congratulations to Michael Cuscuna and Malcolm Addey for their terrific contribution in realizing this project. From what I understand, there are only 5,000 copies of this set for issue. If you're interested in getting one here is Mosaic's address and web site is:
35 Melrose Place
Stamford, CT 06902
I probably could have discussed each track on each record but it would take up the whole of Just Jazz Guitar Magazine. The booklet included is really fascinating as it talks about all the history that is part of this great music. This is my first and most likely only record "review" as it turned more into a retrospective. I was really charged and thrilled to have the chance to write these notes and hope I don't embarrass Johnny too much with my high praise which is truly heart felt.
Jack Wilkins 2003
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Review- " Johnny Smith Mosaic Boxed Set"