Saturday, April 26, 2014

Jammin' with Joey DeFrancesco

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Organ-tenor ensembles have been a staple of the Jazz performance legacy for the better part of 40 years.

Pipe organs were actually the first organs available to Jazz artists, Pioneering musicians like Thomas “Fats” Waller used pipe organs in churches, as accompaniment to silent films and of course in ensembles featuring secular music.

It was the introduction of the first electric organ by Laurens Hammond in 1935 and the subsequent development of a speaker containing two rotating baffles by Don Leslie that jump-started the popular interest in the instrument by players in all genres of music.

Of course the most outstanding quality of the Hammond organ was its (relative) portability. Like its predecessor, the theater organ (Developed by Robert Hope-Jones and introduced by the Wurlitzer organization in the early 1900s), there were multiple stops and pedals for the imitation of other instruments and to allow for orchestral voicing of the music.

Jimmy Smith is generally credited with having pieced together all of the elements of the technique inherited from the pipe, theater and electric organ traditions of Jazz and the blues and rhythm and blues influences which are the critical factors in creating a sound which is so accessible it often becomes the doorway by which Jazz fans first discover their love for the music.

Additionally, we probably have Messrs. Waller, Smith, Bill Basie, Milt Buckner, Wild Bill Davis and a host of others to thank for many of the techniques which are now commonplace for keyboard players who work with synthesizers.

Growing up in Philadelphia, right smack in the middle of the Northeast corridor, Joey DeFrancesco was surrounded by this tradition and by the club scene which nutured it. On this his fifth recording for Columbia, Joey pays tribute to this legacy with an all-star, live date captured at the recently opened New York nightclub which takes its name from its famous predecessor, the Five Spot.”
- Al Pryor, insert notes to Joey DeFrancesco: Live at The Five Spot Columbia CD [CK 53805]

Aside from his musical inventiveness and blazing technique, I’ve always felt that other qualities have made Hammond B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco one of the more admirable members of the current Jazz generation including his amiability, geniality and respect for the Jazz tradition.

Jazz has always been about jam sessions or in the parlance of the music - Jammin.’ In the early years of the music, jam sessions were where you learned your craft. You sought out places to jam, sat in and measured yourself against the skills and ideas of other musicians.

Jam sessions could be competitive, sometimes brutally so and, in this regard, they could be a test of courage. My initiation into the world of jammin’ involved getting up on the stage with a half dozen or so horn players and playing a blistering uptempo version of All The Things You Are for what seemed like an eternity while each hornman took an extended solo. When it was over, my right hand was shaking so bad from playing a continuous cymbal beat that it couldn’t hold a glass of water. I don’t know how musical it was, but I got it done. I guess I cut it because I was allowed to stay on the bandstand to play the next tune.

More often, though, jammin’ is about learning to play with musicians whose style and approach are different if not singular. Experiencing such diversity served to broaden your Jazz vocabulary and helped you learn other ways to express yourself in the music.

Cats like baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Milt Hinton played with anyone and everyone. Swing-era saxophonist Coleman Hawkins employed some of the earliest beboppers in his band because he wanted to learn the “new music” from associating with them. Even The King of Swing, clarinetist Benny Goodman, tried his hand at be-bop for awhile and other Swing Era icons like clarinetist Woody Herman, drummer Gene Krupa and trumpeter Harry James led big bands that fit very nicely into the modern era.

No one on today’s Jazz scene is more into jammin’ with musicians from all eras and styles of Jazz than Joey DeFrancesco. If you have any doubts about this assertion all you need do is check the personnel on the recordings he’s made over the last 15 years or so.

Although I didn’t recognize it as a conscious choice on Joey’s part because I had nothing to compare it to at the time, my first awareness of his inclination to such diversity was Joey’s Live at The Five Spot Columbia CD [CK 53805] on which he appeared with a variety of guest stars including tenor saxophonists Illinois Jacquet, Grover Washington, Jr., Kirk Whalum and Houston Person and one of the icons of the Hammond B-3 organ, “Captain” Jack McDuff.

Since then, Joey’s been in the recorded company of Jimmy Smith, who more than any other musician is responsible for bringing the Hammond B-3 organ into the modern Jazz era, saxophonists Teddy Edwards, George Coleman, and Gary Bartz, guitarists Larry Coryell, Pat Martino, Ron Eschete, Randy Johnson, Jake Langley and Danny Gatton, and drummers Jimmy Cobb, Billy Hart and Jeff Hamilton.

He even formed a super trio with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Dennis Chambers and went on a world tour with them - talk about moving your ears in new directions!

For many years, Joey’s has primarily been in the company of guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landham, two marvelous musicians who can adapt their styles to work with any horn player.

In person, Joey’s admiration for his fellow Jazz musicians is almost palpable - he looks like a kid in a toy store who can’t wait for his turn to make a choice.

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