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Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
Jimmy McGriff
Straight Up

Jazz organ began almost accidentally: Pianists like the ebullient Fats Waller tinkered with the instrument in movie theaters. Intrigued by its various sound possibilities, Waller developed a lifelong love for the organ, which he passed on to Count Basie. But the obvious disadvantage of the pipe organ -- it doesn't travel well, or indeed, at all -- made the instrument an unlikely jazz vehicle until the perfection and popularization of the Hammond electronic organ. Glenn Hardman recorded "Upright Organ Blues" on it in 1939, and figures such as Wild Bill Davis exploited its romantic capabilities in the '40s. But it wasn't until Jimmy Smith began recording in the '50s that the Hammond became the central figure in a hard-hitting, blues-driven jazz; barroom music played with gospel's fervor.

Jimmy McGriff was one of the organists who benefited from Smith's example and fame. But his own sound eschews Smith's bullish virtuosity and the soap opera melodramatics that Wild Bill Davis sometimes indulged in. Instead, McGriff developed a cleanly articulated, gruff style that's every bit as effective, if often less imposing. He traces his roots back to gospel and to Milt Buckner, an organist known for his locked-hand choruses, in which a melody is played in both hands over block chords. The technique can be heard briefly on Straight Up's "Doin' My Thing," where the rhythmic play in McGriff's two-handed chords and on the trading of fours that follows shows another of his strengths: his witty, as well as swinging, use of cross-rhythms.

Recorded last May, Straight Up is a distinctive session. It features the inevitable boogaloo on the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing" but also the virtually unique sound of the flutes of David "Fathead" Newman and Basie veteran Frank Wess on "Straight Up," an appealing Newman composition that stalks instead of walks. McGriff enters with a series of staccato phrases over the tense beat -- he sounds catlike, ready to pounce. There's romance on Johnny Mercer's "Dream" and in the '20s hit "It Had to Be You," which has Newman and Wess sharing the memorable melody in the most relaxed fashion possible.

Straight Up ends gloriously with some righteous bebop in the uptempo version of Sonny Rollins' "Oleo." McGriff likes to say that he's a gospel player, a bluesman, or a popular musician. On "Oleo," though, he sounds like pure jazz.

-- Michael Ullman

Various Artists
Music From and Inspired by Down in the Delta

In the last few years, soundtracks have become a major force in black popular music, allowing a singles-based genre a longer life in an album-dominated market. However, as the importance of soundtracks has grown, the relationship of the music to the movie that it represents has become more tenuous: Only half of the 14 songs on the How Stella Got Her Groove Back soundtrack were actually in that movie, and on many soundtracks there may be no connection at all (besides marketing) between the musical themes and those of the movie.

Music From and Inspired by Down in the Delta is different: The music enhances and reflects the movie. The directorial debut of literary great Maya Angelou, the film is a rare attempt to deal with the emotional -- rather than socioeconomic -- issues involved in the reverse migration of blacks back to the South. In keeping with that theme, the soundtrack seeks to show the connections between current black pop and its rootsier antecedents. In many ways, it's a companion to 1997's Love Jones soundtrack, which probed the connections between high- and lowbrow black culture.

The most obvious attractions on this disc are some of the best. Funkster Me'Shell NdegeOcello and bluesman Keb' Mo meet each other halfway on "My Soul Don't Dream," while Sounds of Blackness is in top form combining gospel with edgy beats on "Don't Let Nothin' Keep You Down." D'Angelo's "Heaven Must Be Like This" is so deftly arranged that if it's a preview of his long-delayed new recording it'll be worth the wait. There are also some surprises: Luther Vandross duets with Cassandra Wilson for an excellent rendition of his "I'm Only Human." Vandross reins in his usual vocal excesses, and Wilson's Delta jazz is an ideal foil for his crooning. Bob James handles the instrumental duties, and while it's easy to dismiss him as a smooth-jazz hack, here he creates oblique keyboard and guitar lines to underpin the vocals. There's also bravura singing from the Leverts, a reunion of Eddie, Gerald, and Sean.

On the downside, Stevie Wonder sings effectively, but the music for his "If Ever" feels generic, while Sunday's opener "Believe in Love" is nondescript modern R&B. Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Patchwork Quilt" is unnecessarily reserved, and on "Family," Stanley Clarke has descended to the ranks of smooth-jazz hacks himself. Fortunately, there are far more pluses than minuses. But most important, the wide range of sounds and backgrounds of the music reinforces the point that many of the geographic and class schisms within the post-civil rights black community can be resolved.

-- Martin Johnson


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