Stuff Smith was one of the major forces in jazz violin during the 1930s and 1940s, though few titles under his name have turned up during the CD era. This English two-CD set includes airchecks, songs recorded for long-defunct labels like Asch and Musicraft, and even a few rehearsals and alternate takes, among other unissued tracks. In spite of the aged source material, the sound is often surprisingly good.
Most of Disc One focuses on the popular trio Smith led with pianist Jimmy Jones and bassist John Levy. Smith varies his approach to his original "Skip It" over two takes, while his swinging "Stop-Look" features his effective (if somewhat gravelly) vocals. The trio version of the exotic "Desert Sands," one of his best-known compositions, ranks alongside any later versions made for other labels.
Two separate airchecks of "Humoresque" are present. The first features vibraphonist Red Norvo, pianist Teddy Wilson, guitarist Remo Palmieri, bassist Al Hall, and drummer Specs Powell, with the leader's antics breaking up the audience. Another version from the same radio program substitutes Mary Lou Williams for Wilson, and omits Norvo, though the band stays more in the background in comparison to the earlier broadcast.
An informal session features pianist Erroll Garner, drummer George Wettling, and trombonist Bobby Pratt. "Toe Jam Blues" (based somewhat on Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues") adds tenor saxophonist Gene Sedric, while Lucky Thompson replaces Sedric for the cooking "Test Pilots," though it takes longer to take shape.
Smith's 1945 Town Hall concert segment suffers from overmodulation which couldn't be corrected by any amount of engineering, but his smoking version of "Perdido," a frenetic "Bugle Call Rag," and his shimmering "Desert Sands" make up for any distortion. The talented pianist is a very young Billy Taylor, with Ted Sturgis on bass. One can only hope that AB Fable will continue to make additional rare music by Stuff Smith available in future compilations.