History has it that jazz guitarist Johnny Smith decided on the guitar at age five, originally motivated by his dad who was a five-string banjo performer, and turned out to be equally as outstanding on the violin, trumpet, and viola as well as the guitar. He likewise called Chuck Wayne, Jimmy Raney, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Pat Martino, Jim Hall, and Harry Leahey as single-line jazz guitar players he enjoyed.
Johnny Smith is one of the original virtuosos of the electric guitar. From the sweeping three octave runs of “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Tea for Two,” and “Easy Living,” to the super fast articulate solos that identify “Tabu,” “Jaguar,” “I’ll Remember April,” “Un Poco Loco,” “Samba,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Tickle Toe,” “Three Little Words,” and “Time After Time,” Johnny Smith’s complex however highly listenable single note jazz guitar improvised solos are the stuff of legend in the history of guitar lore – jazz or otherwise.
Exacting preciseness and technique adeptness have long been qualities of the Johnny Smith jazz guitar style, nevertheless these same characteristics have constantly been held in check by his feeling of taste and clearness. Whether interpreting an up beat bebop line, digging in to a straight ahead swing groove, belting out a lilting jazz waltz, or stroking a sensitive rubato ballad, he is an effective and definitive soloist with an immediately recognizable style and unflagging chops. Along with Johnny Smith’s substantial abilities as a jazz guitar soloist and a professional, he is a fine blues guitarist as shown on “Blues Backstage,” “Fitz,” “Bag’s Groove,” “Blue Lights,” and especially expressive moments in “Satin Doll” and “Sentimental Journey.” Exactly what does it all indicate? Jazz guitar legend Barney Kessel once summed it up nicely along with the now famous observation: “No one on the planet plays the guitar better than Johnny Smith.”.
Johnny Smith is definitely one of the most distinct jazz guitar chord melody players in any genre. His lavish pianistic sonorities and elaborate block chord playing are music signatures and rather different from other guitarists of that age. Envision the jazz chord voicings of pianists Art Tatum and George Shearing incorporated along with the impressionistic harmonies of Claude Debussy, interpreted and realized on an electric guitar, and you have a hint of how Johnny changed the instrument. In this respect, he has actually always been in a distinctive class of his own.
Exemplary jazz guitar chord melody moments in Johnny Smith’s Royal Roost catalog include “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Yesterdays,” “When I Fall in Love,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “Villa,” “I Remember Clifford,” “My Romance,” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” An early reading of “Autumn Leaves” discovers him making a flamenco tinged atmosphere along with dazzling arabesques, double-timed passage performances, and classically influenced chords on acoustic guitar. And the unusual chiming harmonics in the main theme of “It Never Entered My Mind” make the track worth the cost of admission alone.
In retrospect, an incongruous Royal Roost recording like “The Man With The Blue Guitar” appears an obvious expression of Johnny Smith’s broader music pallet. This 1962 record discovered him in a solo guitar context for an entire album creating his plectrum magic with a diverse set of standards, classical, and folk music pieces. Here his gorgeous tone, sensitive touch, and methodology on the instrument are directed at prominent Broadway show tunes by Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin, and others, modern works by Debussy, Scriabin, and Ravel, and novel adaptations olden folk songs like “Shenandoah” and “Black is the Color Of My True Love’s Hair.” More evidence of Johnny Smith’s diverse nature was shown off on his “Phase 2” album (Verve Records) of the sixties. This “jazz” record album featured the genius’ take on atypical pop tunes like “Exodus,” “Don’t Sleep in the Subway Darling,” “This Guy’s In Love With You,” “Sunny,” and The Doors’ “Light My Fire”.