Bill Smith - also known as William O. Smith - is one of those "beyond category" [thanks for that phrase, Duke] musicians: he’s played/improvised with Dave Brubeck, electronic/minimalist pioneer Pauline Oliveros and in classical contexts. Back in 1959, he got three of the best of the West (Coast) and decided to make a jazz album based upon folk tunes - which back then I’m sure was met with the same healthy reception as a collaboration between John Coltrane and a polka band would’ve got. (Even more unbelievable for it actually happened: Ellington sax icon Johnny Hodges made an album with champagne-music master Lawrence Welk.) But this is a brand new age, and we as music fans have come a long way since then - the Fantasy folks realize this and so have rescued it from Collectors’-land. Folk Jazz is, for the record, an album of straight-up cool bebop that bases its improvisations on folk and blues tunes that are practically part of the American collective consciousness: "John Henry," "Greensleeves" (also covered by Coltrane, if memory serves) and "Three Blind Mice" (which as the scholars amongst you know was developed into The Three Stooges’ theme). Smith’s clarinet is warm, dark-hued, never obvious and serenely cool without ever being placid, sticking mostly to the middle range. Jim Hall is, as usual, a wonder to behold: he’s rhythmic and inventive, yet retains some of the folk and blues modal melancholy of the original tunes’ melodies. Manne and Budwig provide plenty of affable swing throughout. While not really the "fusion" the title might imply, this IS a rather nice set of straight-ahead jazz that fans of Anglo-American folk music and 50s cool and bebop can likely all dig with gusto.
Artist / Group Name:Bill Smith Quartet
CD Title:Folk Jazz
Reissue Original Release:1959
Record Label:Contemporary / Fantasy
Musicians:B. Smith: clarinet; Jim Hall: guitar; Monty Budwig: bass; Shelly Manne: drums. Rec. Los Angeles Feb. & Nov. 1959.