Kentucky-born Johnny Hammond was a pioneer of the instrument that gave him his stage name – the Hammond B3. His musical odyssey began under his given name, John Robert Smith as the piano player in various bands and jazz combos. He switched to Hammond organ after hearing Wild Bill Doggett and, recording for labels like Riverside and Prestige, he assumed the moniker Johnny “Hammond” Smith – eventually dropping the Smith part.
In the early 70s he pacted with Creed Taylor’s Kudu label where he cut four reasonably successful albums all carrying the typically Taylor lush, orchestrated sound. In 1974 Taylor – looking for a fresher sound – paired Hammond with the then hot Mizell brothers. After enjoying huge breakout success with Donald Byrd, Larry and Fonce were hugely in-demand by the soul and jazz community but, respecting Taylor and Hammond, they agreed to the album – ‘Gambler’s Life’. However, almost as soon as the LP was released Hammond switched labels – moving to Fantasy/Milestone, though, clearly impressed by ‘Gambler’s Life’, the Mizells agreed to produce his début for that label – ‘Gears’.
The album, released in 1975, is often cited as a jazz-funk landmark – up there with Donald Byrd’s ‘Places And Spaces’ and Lonnie Liston Smith’s ‘Expansions’; odd, given that status, that the album’s been hard to find. Ace/BGP here rectify the situation with this 40th anniversary reissue that offers the original 6 tracks along with 6 “bonuses”- previously unissued tracks cut at the same time.
‘Gears’ opens with a typically Mizell soundscape. ‘Tell Me What To Do’ is funky but eerie at the same time and features those familiar spaced out Mizell vocals and muted horns. ‘Shifting Gears’ is a whole lot funkier while ‘Lost On 23rd Street’ and ‘Can’t We Smile’ bring the pace right down… they could both be love themes from some lost blaxploitation movie. ‘Fantasy’ is a showcase for Hammond’s organ mastery (for much of the album he plays electric piano and syths) . Some might remember that the tune was a dance floor hit a couple of years back in a John Morales remix. The album’s best known cut, of course, is the still wonderful ‘Los Conquistadores Chocolates’.
The bonus tracks offer more of the same but because they were never finished (no sweetening, no overdubs) you’re closer to the interaction between the players and in turn their relationship with the producers. Of particular note are two versions (fast and slow) of a tune called ‘Child’s Love’#