As a jazz subgenre, soul-jazz began to flourish in the early 1960s. A groove-oriented style built from the bottom up, soul-jazz usually begins with the bass player: You take a strong bass line, establish a steady groove between the bass and drums, and then embellish that groove with riffs and melody lines that draw heavily from gospel, blues and R&B. Here are five classic examples.
Jimmy Smith was the master of the Hammond B-3 organ, and he could lay a pretty valid claim to being the father of soul-jazz, as well. Leaving the issue of paternity aside, Smith was certainly present for the birth of the genre. In his blazing 1965 version of "Got My Mojo Workin'" — a song popularized by Muddy Waters in 1957 — Smith plays like a demon and cuts loose with a rare vocal performance. As with most of the songs on this list, it benefits from being cranked up.
To many, "Sidewinder" is the definitive soul-jazz recording. It starts with a strong bass line from Bob Cranshaw and is anchored by drummer Billy Higgins' great groove. Top those guys off with great playing from Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Barry Harris (piano) and trumpeter Lee Morgan, and you've got a going concern. Oddly enough, after "Sidewinder" became popular, Morgan downplayed the track, saying he recorded it as filler for the album, though it's impossible to believe that he was that cynical. With all his talent — and all the beautiful music he had in his head — Morgan had no need to record 10 minutes and 25 seconds of filler, ever. Many jazz musicians want a hit record until they get one, at which point they're kind of embarrassed by it. If the phrase "all killer, no filler" ever applied to a song, it applies to this one.
This song was a stone-cold crossover hit record, and Cannonball Adderley didn't seem embarrassed by it for a second — nor should he have been. It's a great piece of music, perfectly performed. It's also a prime example of the compositional genius of Adderley's pianist at the time, Joe Zawinul, who would go on to mastermind Weather Report. Adderley was always a soulful alto saxophonist, and did a brilliant job of folding R&B and gospel flavors into his jazz in an effort to appeal to a broad audience.
In the '60s, George Benson was a jazz-guitar monster, and that's putting it mildly. After an apprenticeship with organist Jack McDuff, Benson put out his first album as a leader in 1964, at the age of 21. Two years later, he blew the doors off just about every other jazz guitarist in the world with The George Benson Cookbook, which also featured Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ and Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax. It's a stunning record, and this version of the old blues tune "See See Rider" is Benson at his soul-jazz best.
Although this 1967 recording by saxophonist Eddie Harris is a wonderful example of soul-jazz, it's also the song on this list that points most strongly toward the coming of jazz/rock fusion in the early '70s. That genre would soon produce The Weather Report, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and other groups that incorporate the spirit of jazz with the possibilities of electricity. In '67, though, Harris was out there pretty much by himself: experimenting with the electric saxophone, creating sounds that hadn't yet been heard, laying down great grooves and generally paving the way for a whole new sound in jazz.