It’s been a while, I know. Three whole entire months with nada. I and the entire Raggy Waltz staff apologize for this AWOL, and will attempt to do better going forward.
Ok, I feel better now. ANYwho…
Today is International Women’s Day (or it was when I started writing this), and as such, it gives me a great excuse to write about my favorite organ player, the underrated and underdiscussed Shirley Scott. So, to the music!
The Tune: Four
The Tune: Nothing Ever Changes My Love
Recorded: 23 May, 1958 in Hackensack, New Jersey
- Shirley Scott – Organ
- George Duvivier – Bass
- Arthur Edgehill – Drums
It’s not news that I dig Ms. Shirley Scott. I’ve written about her and her albums numerous times over the years, and will continue to do so because she’s like the greatest. But words like ‘great’ are easily thrown around. So while yes, Shirley is great, I’ll also say that I find her work so stimulating and exciting because she has an instantly identifiable, highly original sound, which is a difficult attribute to achieve on any instrument, but especially an electric one and especially an organ. In 1958, when this album was made, Jimmy Smith was the king of the jazz organ. Anyone who wanted to play the organ in a jazz setting had to kiss Smith’s ring, and it was Smith that every organist was compared to. On a scale of 1 to The Incredible Jimmy Smith, how did you rate?
And then came Shirley Scott, like a breath of fresh air.
Scott had been playing with Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ group for three years when sat down in Rudy Van Gelder’s living room and recorded this, her debut album as leader. People accustomed to her work in Lockjaw’s combo were probably more than a little shocked at Scott the leader vs Scott the sideman (or sidegirl, to be accurate). Her exuberant, extroverted and exciting pyrotechnical playing with Mr. Davis is distilled into a more tasteful, measured, and smoldering style for her first album on her own. This Jekyll and Hyde playing of Ms. Scott’s perfectly, if unintentionally showcased her talents as an organist who could fit her playing into multiple contexts.
For her first album, she made the rather unusual decision to use a bass player instead of play the bassline herself on the organ as most organists did, a decision that she would make the majority of the time when she recorded as leader (although, she was perfectly capable of creating her own incredibly tasty, nasty basslines when she wanted to. Exhibit A). The presence of a bass player makes for a solid, earthy foundation upon which Shirley can make her point and it also frees up her left hand, allowing her to comp like a pianist would. This instrumentation plus her brilliant and perfect use of dynamics… *chef’s kiss*.
While the entire album is pretty solid, the two tunes I spotlighted above amply display everything that I mentioned above and are textbook examples of what made Scott so different from every other jazz organist in 1958 and beyond. Miles Davis’ “Four” is taken at a jaunty tempo that showcases Scott’s rich chordal statement of the catchy melody while Edgehill’s tasty brushwork nudges things along. Opening to her solo, brushes are exchanged for sticks and Scott gets to work building, until soon enough she swells into a luscious two-fisted chordal fiesta that surely had everyone in the control booth tapping their feet and grinning. “Nothing Ever Changes My Love” has that ‘Spanish tinge’ that Jelly Roll Morton said was the special ingredient in all good jazz. That intro alone, with the Latin beat coupled with the punchy melody had my face like:
When they switched from Latin to straight jazz, the brushwork and the groove had me like:
Here, again, Scott builds from single-note lines to a roaring climax, employing the organ’s swoops, sighs, and tremolos in the process. It’s a fun, swinging performance to be sure.
The rest of the album contains much of the same flavors, the only misfire being a corny, dated and stereotypical intro to “Cherokee”. Cue tom-toms and all that “Hollywood says this is what ‘primitive’ jungle music sounds like” mess. Hopefully, they played this with tongue firmly in cheek. All in all, this is a strong first album from Ms. Scott and displays how much of an individual she was right at the start.
It’s always fun to see what the folks over at Down Beat Magazine had to say about records when they were initially released. Reading contemporary criticism from 60 years ago is always amusing and revealing. In 1959, John Tynan reviewed Scott’s album, giving a decent amount of ink to her LP. The numerous and inevitable comparisons to Jimmy Smith are here. For instance, at the onset he writes that “[o]ne feels from her playing that she is first an organist, a jazz player second; just as one might say the opposite holds for Jimmy Smith.” He cleans this up a sentence or two later by saying that “[Scott’s] playing is all the more delightful because she seems really to appreciate the rich qualities and tonal values of the organ voice (s).” Another Jimmy Smith reference haunts the review: “She lacks the flexibility of Smith, his quick-fire inventions, flash, and daring.” These are qualities that critics hit Oscar Peterson with, and why does every musician need to express all of these attributes, anyway? Part of what makes Scott so appealing is that she smolders and slow burns, and every good cook knows that you get better food when things cook slowly on low but steady heat instead of cranking the stove to the max.
But I digress.
“But Miss Scott plays with tremendous force and vitality, with powerful emphasis on massed chording, rhythmic shift of balance, and ever-changing tonal colors. In other words, she knows her ax and takes full advantage of the knowledge.” Ok, fair enough. Where we agree 100% is our feelings about that “Cherokee” number: “Cherokee begins on a trite note, with “redskin” tom-toms and so on, but when the trio gets down to business it becomes one of the best in the set.” Other than the insensitive “redskin” bit, these are my thoughts exactly.
He ends his review on an upbeat note, the ghost of Jimmy Smith notwithstanding: “Miss Scott has arrived as a leading organ voice in jazz. If her work still is a league or two behind Jimmy Smith’s, this by no means detracts from her great ability as a jazz organist.” He awards the album 3 and a half stars, which equates to a half-point above ‘good’. Do you agree with his rating? Drop your opinion in the comments!
Raggy Waltz Rating: B
Esmond Edwards, Prestige’s answer to Blue Note’s Reid Miles and Alfred Lion, could be rather hit or miss when it came to album cover design. In this case, he was on it. This is a beautiful, clean, and minimalist design that uses space and color to great advantage, all capped with a bit of whimsy by altering the exclamation mark. Taking a page out of Blue Note’s book, they feature a nice shot of Scott herself at the organ with an orange tint thrown over it, tying nicely with the orange block beside it. Just perfect and a glorious example of how simple it is to create great album artwork.
The liner notes, written by that ubiquitous critic of old, Ira Gitler, are littered with typos, clichés, sexism, and just cringe-inducing qualifiers that I’m sure were meant as compliments back in 1959 when the public read them. A few examples, from nice to what the hail:
- “Now there is a new star on the organ. She combines the “modern” with the blues feeling and presents a high, wide and wailing sound on the Hammond. Her name is Shirley Scott.”
- “”She plays good — for a girl.” This statement has been heard many times in jazz circles. Overlooking the bad grammar, it has been true more often than not. There have been some notable exceptions (fill in your own choices) but, in the main, female jazz players have lacked, among other things, the swing and authentic drive which mark the bonafide jazz musician.”
- “She is only a slip of a girl but she makes that Hammond roar when she wants to. I might add, that she chooses the times when she wants to, very astutely.”
- “Shirley Scott is a girl. At the organ, she does a man-sized job.”
That last quote is how Gitler ends the notes. Yikes.
Released in 1958, the deep groove is present and accounted for, along with those classic yellow and black labels with the firework on them. Rudy Van Gelder did the engineering and left his literal mark of approval in the vinyl runout. Despite engineering for both Prestige Records and Blue Note Records, I find that RVG’s mastering on Prestige has much more body and punch to them than Blue Note. I feel and can almost see Edgehill’s brushwork, and Scott’s organ is transformed into a living and breathing instrument. My copy is in glorious mono, which is kind of how we hear music at a concert anyhow.
An interesting mistake on the labels has third and fourth tracks on the first side switched. “Four” is the last track on the first side, not “Goodbye”. Don’t know what happened there. One of the many typos on this record. Must’ve been a busy day or a long night at the Prestige offices.
The Place of Acquisition
Visiting Arizona last November, I made a beeline to an unassuming record store in Phoenix called Record High. I say unassuming because I passed it the first go-round, and after driving by it three or so times, finally recognized it as a record store. Tucked away in an unlikely part of town, Record High is Phoenix’s great secret. Jazz records galore, great condition, and reasonably priced? I couldn’t believe it. Neither could my wallet. Miles Davis, Brubeck, Cannonball, Lennie Niehaus, even Lars Gullin. It was all there, and then some. When I ran into this record, I internally screamed.
Finding Shirley Scott is always a red-letter day in my opinion, especially when it’s on Prestige. The cover looked immaculate, and the vinyl just as sexy. Needless to say, I grabbed it. Thankfully, Shirley Scott’s records are never expensive, and this copy was only $20. The innkeeper of the store was in, and after chatting with him off and on the entire time I was there, he graciously gave me a discount and his card. So if you’re ever in Phoenix, Arizona and want to grab some jazz records, Record High is the place to go! And when you see the sketchy building on the side of the road, yes, that’s it!