Another month, another quality release from Canada’s adventurous but always listener-friendly label Justin Time. The Spirits Speak should stroll its way up a lot of folks’ street. On offer is all the funky familiarity of a guitar-Hammond trio built into the relaxed meanderings of a fluid, post-bop quartet. Throw in a couple of vocal tracks (plus one wild freestyle work-out) and you have a menu most modern jazz buffs will find hard to resist. Everything operates from within a well-understood tradition but manages to sound as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines.
It is unlikely that the name Ed Cherry will have many households nodding authoritatively. He is one of a legion of reliable but largely uncelebrated sidemen who has done sterling work in a number of settings from the mainstream to the avant-garde. His longest stint of service was for Dizzy Gillespie, with whom he was associated for much of the last fifteen years of the great trumpeter’s career. Dizzy had an ear for a good sideman and that most unselfish of musicians would have been delighted to see one of his less famous co-workers take centre stage. Cherry occupies that space with magisterial ease.
Cherry (no relation to Don, as far as I know) plays a guitar that owes something to both Grant Green and Wes Montgomery without actually copying either. A less convention-bound side testifies also to the influences of Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock but eschews their abandon or excess. He is actually hard to pin down as the texture varies considerably from track to track — a sure testimony to his years as a sideman. Not that he lacks identity — maybe he is just not especially egotistical. If so, he is a rarity among guitarists. Let us just say that the requirements of the mood of each piece win out — so, by the way, does the audience. There is much more variety on this record than one has come to associate with guitar-led outfits.
Therefore the late ’50s sprightliness of the opening “Little Girl, Big Girl” is a long way from the aggression of “Woo/Sharrock”, while the cocktail bar delicacy of Horace Silver’s “Peace” is a very different animal to a bluesy track such as “Top Hat” or “Joe’s Thing”. Whatever the mode, an unhurried and understated funkiness informs each note and run. A refreshing absence of excessive technical showing-off cannot hide the fact that Cherry’s technique is of the highest order. There is great “feel” his playing and a lightness of touch bordering on friskiness. Though far from flippant or glib, he imbues each tune with a sense of joy and shies away from the frowning seriousness that is de rigueur in the no dancing, chin-stroking world of contemporary “proper” jazz.
Aside from the emotional range of the session leader, what makes this record stand out is the presence of organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. Now, the Hammond B3 is a wonderful behemoth of an instrument but not even its greatest fans would accuse it of being prone to excessive individuality. Bluntly, most Hammond players sound the same. The veteran Smith (not to be confused with Lonnie Liston or Jimmy) has always been an exception to this rule. From his early work with a young George Benson, through to some highly idiosyncratic jazz-funk collectibles in the early ’70s, he has stamped a musical identity on his recordings as distinctive, and at times as eccentric, as his visual image. Yes, he still wears that turban and the beard is now of Swami-like proportions. He makes the ideal co-conspirator with Cherry — a guitar-Hammond duo who use the time-honoured strengths of that pairing but give it a delicate and delightful twist.
When you add the soprano sax of Joe Ford and the no-nonsense drumming of Nasheed Waits on to this duo, you have the ingredients for a great breadth of shapes and nuances. And it doesn’t stop there. Chanteuse Laird Jackson pops up on two tracks to further extend the album’s range. However, although this trio add greatly to the richness of the fare, individually their contributions are less unreservedly successful than those of Smith and Cherry.
This is not entirely Ford’s fault. A fine saxophonist, in a light Coltrane-meets-Lucky-Thompson style, his concentration on the soprano sax does tend to wear thin after a while. Coltrane has a lot to answer for in reviving this striking but often irritating member of the reed family. For the first two tracks “Little Girl…” and “The Spirits Speak” everything works and he offers a real extension to the group sound. From then, an overly reedy tricksiness creeps in that detracts from the balance and warmth of the Cherry/Smith efforts. Similarly Laird Jackson’s singing style is an acquired taste and, even then, somewhat hit and miss. Her vocals on “Peace” are the album’s low spot — whereas her own “Share A Life”, sung with a powerful but controlled conviction, is one of its outstanding moments. As for the percussion, it is safe and sufficiently muscular but occasionally lacks subtlety.
But this is being very fussy. There are too many highpoints to allow one to dwell on the odd shortcoming. Cherry as composer, organiser and key soloist is a revelation while the Doctor is definitely IN on this session. Whether you prefer the rockier outreaches of “Woo” or the straight-ahead small combo groove of the title track matters less than the sense of being taken on a thorough musical tour by a group of people who really know the local landscape. This is not the most demanding album you will hear this year (or from this label) but it has great charm and a generous helping of soulfulness. It will certainly surprise you if you believe the Hammond-based sets signify a solid hour of pumping but restrictive club blues.
Cherry is now 47 but this might not prevent him being one or two critics’ newcomer of the year. I don’t know how they calculate age on the planet Lonnie Smith inhabits but he deserves an award too. Together they have produced some of the most enjoyable music I have heard this summer.