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2018 Hope College Jazz Organ Summit

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Be it the amazing organ masters or the great guitarists and drummers, the summit has exposed the Hope students and community to some of the world’s greatest players. —Brian Coyle, Hope College Jazz Studies Director
2018 Hope College Jazz Organ Summit featuring Tony Monaco, Gerard Gibbs, and Dr. Lonnie Smith
Hope College
Holland, Michigan
March 9-11, 2018

Back in the fall of 2016, a small liberal arts college on the banks of Lake Michigan decided to serve as the epicenter of activity aimed at gaining more respect for the art of jazz organ playing. Over the course of that weekend, artists and students alike would bond over their commonalities and come together to celebrate the history of the Hammond B3 organ and its substantial jazz lineage. All the stars seemed to have aligned for Hope College to take on such a challenge during that first Jazz Organ Summit. They had just the year before opened a new multi-million dollar music facility. Furthermore, director of jazz studies Brian Coyle is well-known for his willingness to foster dreams and set up vital experiences for his students, thus allowing this brainchild of organ master Tony Monaco to take shape.

While about a year and a half had passed since the first summit, the wait was more than worth it as the second annual event recently took place again in Holland, Michigan. This small town and quaint college is really the ideal setting for such an event and a diverse and large audience of attendees managed to make this sophomore effort as good as if not even better than the first. Travelling from far and wide, including folks from Arkansas and Colorado, organists brought their notebooks, video recording devices and talents to campus again with both Coyle and Monaco at the helm of this grand affair.

As Coyle explained to this writer in the days after this year's festivities, "The Organ Summit is a one-of-a-kind event in the United States. It has benefited the organ students in the very obvious ways, but has also benefited all of the students by bringing these amazing artists to campus. Be it the amazing organ masters or the great guitarists and drummers, the summit has exposed the Hope students and community to some of the world's greatest players."

Friday's event kicked off at three in the afternoon on Friday, although things did not go exactly as planned. In town that night for a sold-out performance at Hope's main auditorium, Dr. Lonnie Smith and his trio were slated to give a clinic and workshop. Supported by guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Xavier Breaker, Smith started out with a light romp on Tadd Dameron's "On a Misty Night" before opening things up for some questions. After a few quick exchanges, Smith then launched into another ballad number that quickly dissipated as it was clear that something was wrong. Smith was clearly not feeling well and folks rushed quickly to get him backstage and fortunately organist and Doctor Eugene Rivera stepped in to see to his needs.

Having been on the road steadily since January, it seemed that Smith was clearly under the weather. Rivera had served him some food and liquids and the plan was for Smith to get some rest in order to hopefully perform his concert that evening. Without missing a beat, Detroit organ great Gerard Gibbs took over for the rest of the workshop before everyone headed over to the VIP reception at the Courtyard Marriot Hotel. Big E's Sport Bar quickly turned into a convention of jazz organ lovers, with Coyle providing drink tickets and the venue setting up a great spread of gourmet pizzas.

A packed house filled the main auditorium of the Jack H. Miller Center for the Musical Arts that night. Having followed doctor's orders, Smith seemed to be back in action as he took the stage with his bandmates. A freeform opening melded into the iconic "Backtrack," with Kreisberg turning heads literally via his virtuosic guitar displays. In terms of building a solo, he has few rivals, but he also sagaciously uses a variety of foot pedals and other electronic devices to vary the texture and timbre of his accompaniment. A genuine highlight of Smith's recent live recording, All in My Mind, the trio revamped Paul Simon's "50 Way to Leave Your Lover" in a manner that surely would have impressed its composer.

Taken at what drummer Kenny Washington calls "the adult tempo," Lonnie waxed poetic on the ballad "Frame for the Blues." Breaker, who was spelling regular drummer Jonathan Blake, earned his keep here and elsewhere with musically responsive accompaniment and stellar solo work of his own. He is surely an up-and-coming talent worthy of wider recognition. Adding quirky keyboard runs and splashes of color on his electronic keyboard, Smith set up "Alhambra," which proved another great showcase for Kreisberg's blistering guitar. Losing himself in the groove of the final number, Smith proved the real trooper with a fine performance that warmed the hearts of those alarmed by what had transpired earlier.

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