Shadow Classic: The Guitar Music of Johnny Smith

Johnny Smith, quiet demon of the guitar….

When the jazz guitarist Johnny Smith died last month at the age of 90, obituaries told of a career spent mostly in a willful semi-obscurity, then focused on two compositions – his cover of the ballad “Moonlight in Vermont,” which was a left-field jazz hit in 1952, and his original “Walk Don’t Run,” which became a big hit when covered by surf-rock kingpins The Ventures in 1959.

That’s the highlight reel. A multi-instrumentalist, Smith began his career in the trumpet section of the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, and picked up extra work in New York by playing jazz on guitar. Eventually that became his full-time job;  before leaving New York in 1958 for family reasons, Smith put together a string of remarkable small-group recordings, showcases for his fluid technique and impossibly warm guitar tone. Some of these titles are hard to find, but a few, including the Moonlight in Vermont session featuring Stan Getz, endure as chamber-jazz classics, notable for their intricate ensemble passages and apt, lyrical solos. (According to legend, Herbie Hancock’s first exposure to jazz came with this record.) Smith was one of those improvisors who could play anything but almost always  exercised restraint; his light, uptempo bebop-influenced solos (see “Where or When”) have a crisp, placid feel, as though he’s thinking, note by note, about not overloading the rhythm. His ballad playing (“Embraceable You”) is equally thoughtful, exhibiting not just genius note choices but an uncanny sense of nuance and texture.

A playlist devoted to some of Smith’s gems is available here.