Mosaic Releases Johnny Smith Box
Posted 10/23/2002

Mosaic Records has released The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions in celebration of the guitarist’s 80th birthday.

An influential and popular figure to both his contemporaries and future guitarists from mainstream to avant-garde, Smith’s personal choices were the only things that prevented him from achieving major stardom. In spite of his frequent appearances at Birdland and other New York clubs, Smith never really took to the jazz scene, spending most of his professional career in the anonymous environment of the New York City studio orchestras and session rooms during the late ’40s and most of the ’50s. Following the death of his second wife, Johnny left the scene and moved to Colorado to focus on raising his four-year-old daughter. He’s lived there ever since, dividing his time between teaching, playing, operating his own guitar center, and enjoying life with Sandra, his wife of 42 years.

While those life choices certainly worked out for him, the world of music lost out, making this outstanding 8 CD-set all the more important – and essential to any lover of jazz guitar. Smith, like many great jazz artists from Ellington to Coltrane, never considered himself a jazz player. Rather than being in denial of having command of the jazz vernacular, this is more of a refusal to be limited or pigeonholed.

While The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions provides undeniable testament to his extraordinary jazz abilities, the set also provides ample evidence of Smith's broader palette of musical expression. In addition to a number of interesting items peppered among the vast array of material – including “Walk, Don’t Run!,” a Smith original that became a monster hit for The Ventures a decade later – this set includes two entire LPs that display other sides of Johnny Smith.

The first, Flower Drum Song was recorded shortly after the Rogers and Hammerstein hit show opened in 1958. With cellist Charles McCracken replacing the piano in Smith’s usual quartet setting, this album showcases Smith’s outstanding arrangements of the somewhat challenging material. The second LP, The Man With The Blue Guitar, is a fascinating set of 13 solo performances encompassing popular standards, folk and classical music interpretations, including his own adaptations of works by Ravel, Debussy and Scriabin. Its exquisite beauty is even more impressive after reading Smith’s recollections of the highly unusual circumstances surrounding the recording.

Best known for his lightning-fast runs, Smith was also a superbly sensitive interpreter of ballads. Both are in good supply here, along with everything in-between, all highlighted by his bright sound, amazing technique and sheer virtuosity.

The 15 LPs and 4 ten-inch sessions that are collected in the set's 178-tracks cover a major slice of the Great American Song Book. In addition to the aforementioned Rogers and Hammerstein material, Gershwin, Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, Alec Wilder, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Cole Porter and many more of the most popular composers’ songs are contained here, including an entire album of material by Jimmy Van Heusen. Jazz classics by Ellington, Monk, Benny Golson, Horace Silver, George Shearing, Bud Powell, Milt Jackson, Erroll Garner and others are given respectful treatments along with a number of originals by Smith.

While most of these tracks feature Smith in a trio or quartet setting with his guitar up front, his earliest dates -- a series of quintet sessions featuring three of the top Lester Young-influenced tenor players of the early fifties: Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Paul Quinichette – are of special interest. Originally released as singles and later issued on 10-inch LPs, these tracks include Smith's single biggest hit, “Moonlight In Vermont,” from his very first session in 1952 with Getz.

Like many inventive and innovative artists, Smith generally kept a consistent group of


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