Unfortunately, the audience didn’t get to hear much of Jimmy Smith’s renowned organ playing, as he spent most of his time wisecracking and left the solos (except a few five-second teases) to the other band members. Instead, we were treated to some entertainingly deadpan sarcasm and good-humored insults. The music was belly-laughing fun.
Even the rhythm-challenged people in the room were clapping their hands to the funky rimshot backbeat of "8 Counts for Rita." Jimmy even let us participate a little, interrupting the music (three times!) to explain how we were supposed to count down, "8, 7, 6, 5 5, uh, you know the rest " in the breaks.
Tommy Campbell did his Uncle Jimmy proud on drums, especially on his very inventive drum solo in mid-set. Campbell moved with ease from a measured, tick-tocking style to island-dance euphoria, demonstrating a nice timbral range and using dynamic shifts (without relaxing the intensity) to back off from the pending climax. He plays with his mouth open just like Smith. Maybe it runs in the family. Or maybe when you can see a drummer’s teeth and his tongue you know he’s giving you everything he’s got.
Phil Upchurch has an expressive face, at once sad, sleepy, and curious. A shock of white hair contrasts with his black eyebrows that twist into S’s when he’s really concentrating (as on one solo number, where he chastised a lady in the audience for loudly tapping her feet). One would think a guitarist with his talent would be able to concentrate on tough chord changes despite the distraction of a little noise. The fact that he broke out into a sweat on this number just goes to show you that it’s not as easy as it looks, even after 50 years of playing.
Soprano/tenor saxophonist George Harper, meanwhile, was the coolest of the cool. He bowed monklike to the audience and didn’t start smiling until about halfway through the set. Here he played improv on a particularly funny number involving fake high note "mistakes" and snippets of silly childhood melodies. In general, Harper’s music moves, but he is the picture of calm, standing stock still and barely moving his fingers, laid flat over the keys.
The night ended with an uptempo "Satin Doll," after which Smith threatened to "go home to bed," but the band did offer up one enthusiastic encore featuring soloist Michael Fennel on blues mouth organ. Catalina’s, one of the top two jazz clubs in Los Angeles, is at 1640 N. Cahuenga in Hollywood. It’s worth the hefty cover and drink minimum. If you’re a student, check out their discounts Sundays and Thursdays.