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Joey DeFrancesco: Organ Master meets Crooner

By Published: October 8, 2003

It?s so important to have fun, for people to see you having fun at what you?re doing. Jazz, to me, has gotten way too serious with a lot of the younger generation.

Joey DeFrancesco is rightfully known as an incredibly talented organ player. He's got an array of solid CDs that document his rise to the top. He can fit into any setting, from hard bop to the electronic funk of 1980s Miles Davis. He can swing a room of lead balloons. This affable Italian can even croon Sinatra tunes and other standards, and plans on one day bringing out some interpretations of Louis Prima music. He's had the audacity to usurp his idol, the legendary Jimmy Smith, atop annual critics' polls.

He's only 32.

Critics and observers say he's responsible for the re-birth of the Hammond B3 and organ music's place jazz. That revival not only brought attention back to players like Dr. Lonnie Smith, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff, but spawned new faces like Tony Monaco, Barbara Dennerlein, Larry Goldings and John Medeski. He feels good about that, and to that point, he's very direct. 'They say that, and they're right. I take full credit,' he said matter-of-factly, no self-effacing chuckle or aaww-shucks modesty attached.

But he's not conceited about it. It is what it is, a combination of good fortune and mad talent that placed this child prodigy into the limelight and returned the foot-tapping exhilaration of music driven by the Hammond B3 back to the public eye. And let's face it, this cat can play. He burns. Hell, his first professional gig was playing with Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley in clubs around his native Philadelphia' at the age of 10!! Most kids that age are just trying to get out of the 'little kid' club, hoping they can avoid Nerd Junction and Dork City along the way.

Conceit? No. Confidence? Yes.

If evidence is needed that ego isn't always in the driver's seat, check out the latest in his body of strong recordings. Falling in Love Again is produced largely as a vehicle to showcase a relatively unknown singer DeFrancesco has known and enjoyed for many years, Joe Doggs. It's a collection of standards put together with the express purpose of bringing Doggs to the public eye. Yeah, DeFrancesco cooks in typical fashion, but it's a disc to open people's eyes about the singing. And it's likely to make some noise.

Doggs 'is somebody I've known for years and really admired the way he sang and phrased and his arrangements. I always felt he should record. And I got in the position where I could pretty much do what I want with my recording, and I felt it was time to do it,' said DeFrancesco. 'These are tunes I remember hearing him sing. Together, we came up with a set of tunes we thought would be a good representation for the first recording. They really sound great, I think.'

When people here Doggs' Jimmy Scott tone, with livelier phrasing and swing, it's going to turn some heads. The arrangements of classic tunes, including 'But Not For Me,' 'Love For Sale,' 'My Romance,' and 'Pennies From Heaven' are all done by Doggs too. And it features players like Pat Martino, Kevin Eubanks and Ralph Moore augmenting DeFrancesco's powerful trio.

'Definitely. There's a big-time Jimmy Scott influence' in Doggs' singing, DeFrancesco said. 'It's a very eclectic style of singing. Either you love it or you hate it. But people that love it know it's a jazz style. It's not like Frank Sinatra or something like that, who I absolutely love. We all do. But it's a very stylistic thing.'

The organist also likes the fact that the music is not secondary to the singing. 'He likes it cookin' behind him. He doesn't like, 'I'm a singer. You just make background noise.' He wants to hear it cookin'. Hard.' This time around, DeFrancesco, who has a respectable singing style, ignored any temptation to sing with Doggs. 'We talked about it, but I just wanted people to really focus on what I'm doing musically and what he's doing vocally. We're going to do another one together. Maybe on that one we'll do some duets or something.'

DeFrancesco and Doggs have played numerous times together in Philly over the years, either sitting in at each other's club dates, or just jamming at one or the other's homes. And now that DeFrancesco has clout at Concord Records ' he's one of the producers of the album ' he was able to bring the project forward and have it carried through. He even has the ability to add stellar players to the mix, 'within reason.'

Right from the beginning, it was all done as a concept for him,' he said of Falling in Love Again. 'I brought it to them. They liked what they heard. I said, 'This is what I'd like to do.' It worked out. Concord is a jazz label that understands creativity. Sometimes, in the process of creating something, it might not always be the greatest thing, but that's what we do. They realize that.'

They also realize DeFrancesco is a titan on his instrument with a lot of creativity ahead of him. While the new CD features standards and attests his strong strength in the mainstream swing idiom, don't expect DeFrancesco to sit still. 'I'm pretty much comfortable with anything. It just happens to be the style that works best with Joe, so that's what we went for. I love so many different kinds of music. I have a range of tastes that's pretty silly, I think. I love John Coltrane. I love Louis Prima as much as I love Miles Davis. I just love good music.'

His father, 'Papa' John DeFrancesco, is also a jazz organist, a veteran on the Philadelphia scene, and his grandfather, Joe, played tenor saxophone with the Dorsey Brothers. It was those early influences that brought Joey along and moved him toward jazz in a pop-driven world and catapulted him and the Hammond B3 into the limelight.

'I grew up around his music. But a lot of people grow up around it and they don't take to it. I loved it from Day 1,' he said, and he loved the Hammond organ and its massive sound right from the start too. 'I don't know why people choose the trumpet or the sax. I don't know. It's the voice that you hear. It's an extension of your own voice. It sounds right, feels right to you.'

'There was never a pressure,' he added. 'I was never forced to do it. I just loved to do it.'

The jazz he heard around the house influenced him, but so did the music that was on TV and the radio in his formative years. 'I grew up being a Michael Jackson fan, as well as Jimmy Smith and Miles Davis and Ray Charles and James Brown and a lot of other stuff. The Bee Gees.'

And when DeFrancesco ' 'the kid' ' started to get noticed around Philly, and then on a nationals front following a strong as a pianist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, a sequence of events pushed him and his instrument into prominence, and The Revival.

'I'm not being egotistical about that. It's just that everything happened right. I was young. I was 17. I did a record with Columbia Records, ( All of Me ) a major label. Being young and playing the organ ' there was no new face doing it for 30 years. A lot of guys were still playing, and they were great. But they needed something to spark the whole interest again. A lot of people were reminded of this thing they used to love. Then you had a lot of young people that thought I invented it, and then they realized there's a lot of stuff that preceded that. And they go back and check that out. So it makes that come back. It's a whole chain reaction of events. Whether I played it good or played horrible, it brought the attention back to it.'

It caused fans to go back and look at people like Lonnie Smith, 'Because for years you didn't hear about Lonnie, you know? And he was out there. And the Hammond organ company now, who I endorse, is making the Hammond B3 again. The last one that was made was 1975. In 2002, they started building them again.' It's a source of pride to this artist.

DeFrancesco was already the buzz around Philly as a kid. 'I played with some pretty prominent guys that were here in Philly. When I was 10, I was working with Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley, in a trio. In a place called Gert's Lounge in South Philly. Somebody heard me and they had a jam session and said, 'Bring the kid down.' I played and they heard me and they offered me Fridays and Saturdays through the summer, on summer vacation. It was pretty great. They tolerated the kid.'

At 16, he was the first recipient of the Philadelphia Jazz Society's McCoy Tyner Scholarship, and a year later entered the Monk competition that would lead to his discovery by Columbia ' an event that happened before his renowned hookup with Miles Davis, not because of it.

'I was 14 or 15, in DC. There were 25 semi-finalists and they broke it down to five finalists. I was one of the five finalists. But I was along with guys like Marcus Roberts, who was already a professional at the time, playing with Wynton Marsalis. Just to be in there with all that was pretty cool, and I wasn't even a pianist really. I was an organ player. I dabbled in the piano. But to be up there with all those cats was pretty cool.

'But the best thing that happened out of that was that George Butler of Columbia Records was there. He didn't show a whole lot of interest in me as a pianist. That's because the whole thing was piano and there was a million of us. But I was young, so he did acknowledge that and said to send a tape. I sent a tape. BUT, when I sent a tape, I played the organ on it, and that was what blew him away. The guy hadn't heard anything like that in years,' he said, then quipped 'a white guy playing like a black guy ' that's marketable.'

Before the record came out, however, Miles' eyes were opened to the Philly phenom, which led to a huge career boost. In tandem with the new record, it put DeFrancesco on a path to notoriety.

'I had already done my record with Columbia [ All of Me ] and it didn't come out yet, but I had a deal. I got that before Miles. A lot of people think I got that because of Miles. He had no idea I had a deal or anything. He heard me on a local TV show in Philly. He was on the show that same day, being interviewed. After the show, he came up to me and punched me in the chest and said, 'You can play, motherfucker. Gimme your phone number.' So I gave him the number. He said to send him a tape. I sent him a tape. This was in November of 1987. In July of 1988 he called me. He said, 'You wanna join the band?' I was like, 'Oh shit!' all right.' I went up to New York and went up to his apartment. That's how it all happened.'

Miles, of course, was in his funk period, but DeFrancesco knew the music and fit in. Even with the synthesizers.

'Definitely. I was a Miles fan. Everything he did. My favorite stuff at that time was the stuff with Trane, Red Garland, Philly Joe, Paul Chambers. But I was very familiar with what he was doing up to that point also. I went out and got a couple synthesizers and went on the road. Went to Europe for six weeks. It was completely different. I was into synthesizers and stuff like that, though. I still am.

'He was great to be around. He was great to me. I can't say anything negative about Miles Davis. He treated me great. He was wonderful to be around. He was always a gentleman. Just a nice man. I learned a lot. He used to tell me little things all the time, which, maybe I didn't understand as much as I do now. He'd always say, 'You'll understand this more when you get older.''

From there, it's been a good ride for DeFrancesco. And he's also tried to give back, and not just with the introduction of Doggs on the new CD. He's encouraging to young musicians if they want to sit in a t a club date, because it was things like that which helped him develop. 'whenever I see a young kid come out, a little kid like I was, I try to embrace that. If they say they play, I get them up there and play. Because that's important. In Philly, every Tuesday and Wednesday there's a jam session. At a place called Ortlieb's Jazzhaus you can go and put your name on a list and get up there and play. That's how you've got to learn, you've got to get your butt kicked.'

He also produced Monaco's first CD, Burnin' Grooves. 'I heard him and said, 'We need more guys like this.' It helps us all,' he said.

DeFrancesco has amalgamated his various influences, like Jimmy Smith, into his own style that is influencing others. His inspiration comes from other musicians too, through the history of the music. 'There's so many. I've met most of my idols, except guys that are no longer with us, like Trane. Coltrane was a huge influence. Herbie [Hancock], who's a great guy, incredible player. I could go on and on. It's tough to really pick them. You take all of these different influences you like from all these different players. Gil Evans put it the best way. You pour it all into a funnel and you come out the bottom as yourself.'

'I'm having a ball. Working all the time, I feel very fortunate,' he said in his simple, joyful way, adding with a laugh, 'People seem to want to hear my silly shit.'

And silliness is a part of it. DeFrancesco doesn't think a stoic attitude is beneficial to the performance. People want to be entertained, he said, and there's no reason not to entertain them. He laughs easily, sings, and can even play some trumpet to keep people interested at the gig. His advice to jazz musicians today: Lighten up.

'Jazz, to me, has gotten way too serious with a lot of the younger generation. They're great players and musicians, and when you get off the bandstand with them, you have a ball. They're all great guys. But they look like they're miserable on the stage. I don't think people wanna watch that, you know? Years ago, Coltrane used to move around like a maniac. In the 50s, he walked the bar, man. Now, fuggetaboutit. You're not allowed to have fun. But that's what this is, man. It's show business. You can still have the musical integrity. Be serious about the music, but have fun. I have a ball. Look at Dizzy Gillespie. One of the greatest trumpet players who invented the shit. He'd dance around and act foolish. People loved to watch.'

DeFrancesco plans to use more synthesizers in future projects, but the Hammond is where he lives. As he says, it's his voice that even computers and advanced technologies can't fully duplicate. 'It's like trying to duplicate the saxophone or the trumpet. They just can't duplicate those instruments. I still love synthesizers and I use them. I'm going to be using them a lot more than I have before to do different things. But the B3 has a sound all of it's own. The real deal is the real deal.'

No matter how far he may get into other keyboards, the music will still have balls. 'That element will always be there. The groove and the swing will always be there, regardless of the presentation. I play a lot of standards. I think that's one of the reasons why people enjoy what I'm doing too. There's so much to those standards.'

'I want to get back to that whole swing thing. The Louis Prima stuff. Maybe not do exactly the same thing they were doing, but the spirit of it. It's so important to have fun, for people to see you having fun at what you're doing,' he said of the possible future project.

As for everything else? 'I'm doing very well and I feel very fortunate.' That's a guy who's lightened up.


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