On Craig Handy's OKeh Records debut, Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith, funk and groove supply the motive and the motivation. The album, available January 21, 2014, is the saxophonist's first recording as a leader in more than a decade. The repertoire consists of 10 numbers from the songbook of Jimmy Smith - the founder of modern jazz organ expression, a creative inspiration that evolved from Handy's realization several years ago that his distinguished resume included no opportunities "to cut my teeth with any of the great organ players." As an added---and surprising---turn, Handy's reinterpretation of Smith's work includes rhythm and grooves derived from the tight second-line funk of New Orleans.
For his band Handy recruited soul jazz specialists Kyle Koehler on Hammond B-3 and Matt Chertkoff on guitar (both New Jersey neighbors and members of his working band), sousaphone virtuoso Clark Gayton, and well known New Orleans drummers Jason Marsalis, Herlin Riley and Ali Jackson. Trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and blues singer-guitarist Clarence Spady make their trademark appearances on the record as well.
In approaching the session, Handy recalls, "I realized that two of Jimmy's hits-'The Cat' and 'High Heel Sneakers'-used modified second-line rhythms. A light bulb went off in my head. I said, 'That's it-we'll do a Jimmy Smith record in the second-line vein.' New Orleans is one of the furnaces that jazz comes from, and I saw no need to change my stripes to suit the style."
Nor do Handy's colleagues. Koehler, a Philadelphian, is intimate not only with Smith's entire corpus, but also with the vocabularies of Philly contemporaries Don Patterson, Shirley Scott, and Charles Earland. Handy observes that Chertkoff, who is equally in demand, effectively channels "the mood and vibe of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, and Quentin Warren," who are among the most eminent of the guitarists who served as Smith's foils during his years with Blue Note and Verve. There is no busier low-end brass player in New York than Gayton, Handy's band mate in the Mingus Big Band since the mid '90s.
"Matt and Kyle serve as the jazz element, keeping us honest as a modern jazz quintet," Handy says. "Clark and the drummers add the second line element, and I straddle both." That's a perfect description of Handy's treatment of the Muddy Waters blues "Got My Mojo Working." Playing drums and washboard, Riley unleashes a relentless quasi-zydeco shuffle as Spady delivers a gritty vocal. Wynton Marsalis counterstates with fierce growls and hollers that coalesce into an inflamed, cogent solo, from which the leader piggybacks into his own soul-drenched declamation.
Riley's Zigaboo Modaliste-meets-Clyde Stubblefield funk beats propel Handy's intense soprano solo on "Mellow Mood" and his tenor statement on "Ready 'N Able," and "I Got Rhythm" line that Smith presented on his 1956 Blue Note debut, A New Sound, A New Star.
Old-school New Orleans comes forth in the tasty press rolls that Jason Marsalis executes with control and taste to animate the classic Ivory Joe Hunter ballad "I Almost Lost My Mind." He also incorporates tambourine into the groove of "Road Song," a Smith-Montgomery classic; enlivens Handy's soulful alto solo on "Organ Grinder's Swing" with inexorable march cadences; and synchronizes the ride cymbal and bass drum swingingly on Stanley Turrentine's "Minor Chant."
"Minor Chant" is one of several homages to Turrentine that Handy offers on Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith. "The older I get, the more I relate to Stanley," Handy says. "Everything he does appeals to me, like I've been walking for 10 miles and there's a water fountain. I have to drink. I liked him from the very beginning, though as a kid I was drawn to Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane, who were playing more straight-ahead bop, although Stanley was no slouch in that department. Things were wide-open in the Bay Area, and the level of musicianship was high. Nobody was saying, 'Here's what you have to do and this is the way you have to do it.' I'm also a product of the funk movement. The Pointer Sisters lived around the corner from my house, and I listened to Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Parliament-Funkadelic as much as jazz."
In a sense, Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith marks the first time that Handy has coalesced all of these influences into a unified statement. In part, he credits Bridgewater, a frequent employer since 2010, who sings "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" in her inimitably saucy manner: "Playing with Dee Dee, watching her assume a different role for every song, has rubbed off on me," Handy says. "A singer has to sell the song, and Dee Dee becomes that song every time. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have had the chutzpah to pull off this project. I would have been too self-conscious, concerned about how people perceive me. I wasn't musically ready to handle this kind of project, though I've been heading here for 25 years. Now this seems like the hippest thing I've ever done. As long as I stay in the groove of the beat, I can play anything I hear, be it angular or abstract, and it will sound cool over the bands foundation. Just talking about it is making me excited-I can't wait to get to the next gig-we have so much fun on the bandstand!"