Playlist: Melting Guitar

Dipping a toe into the sound-world of Johnny Smith

The other day, while searching for a Patti Smith quote on NPR’s site, I stumbled on my colleague Tom Cole’s brief remembrance of the jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, who died in 2013.

It’s a great short piece about an underloved genius. Smtih developed a sound for the electric guitar that is the essence of liquidic grace. He had technical facility in abundance but often held it way back, choosing instead to sculpt melody lines using notes that softly melt into each other. His poised demeanor is almost an exotic trait anymore: What sounds at first like “easy listening” — the title of one compilation — becomes a sustained inquiry on texture and the ways it can define the temperament of a piece of music.

Smith made a few astonishing records (involving such luminaries as Stan Getz and Hank Jones); he recorded a hit version of “Moonlight In Vermont” and was the composer of the Venture’s breakthrough “Walk Don’t Run.” Somehow, though, he never attracted attention commensurate with his gifts. This playlist is just a starting point — level 1 of many.

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